Info bill will put 'firms at a disadvantage'

2011-09-19 16:09
Cape Town - Security, or state secrecy, legislation such as the protection of information bill could see businesses placed at a disadvantage should they come into competition with a state-owned enterprise, says Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Pan African Conference on Information Access on Sunday, Dawes said: "Information is the lifeblood of markets and nowadays all businesses are information businesses. Broadly speaking the business environment is badly damaged by law that restricts the flow of information.

More narrowly the potential that exists to classify information on government tenders and the activities of parastatals on security grounds could very well see the information asymmetry between the government and the private sector increase."

Dawes said one could easily imagine an electricity tender, or a roads or water tender being captured under the heading of state security, and if that is the case, it would become very difficult for companies to get their rights to equal treatment vindicated.

"I think potentially it would give state-owned enterprises, but also politically well-connected business players, an advantage. Anything that decreases the possibility of scrutiny increases the possibility of unfair treatment and corruption," Dawes said.

During the conference Dawes was asked by SA National Editors Forum chairperson Raymond Louw about some of the difficulties, apart from the raft of secrecy laws, which hamper publication.

Dawes said there had been a recent tradition to delay, frustrate and increase the price of publication of a weekly newspaper such as the M&G to try and interdict it on a Thursday in order to stop its appearance on a Friday.

"There has been a strategy to bring them [an interdict application] late on a Thursday. However, the courts are generally rejecting them and they [the complainants] have to fight pretty hard to get a last minute injunction against us," he said.

Dawes bemoaned the lack of an information commissioner in SA saying that there was no specialised capacity for information dissemination.

"Which is an amazing problem as there is no institutional locus to make that happen," he said.

Dawes cited a ruling by former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo who said that because of the media's role in the democratic process, government has a duty to provide information access that was crucial to accurate reporting.

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