Information bill debate resumes
Cape Town - The ANC said on Tuesday that it could not allow debate on the protection of information bill to continue forever, and would put contentious clauses to the vote if it failed to find agreement from the opposition.
"If there is no consensus we will vote on the matter and move on," warned the chairperson of the ad hoc committee drafting the bill, Cecil Burgess, as MPs resumed work after the municipal election recess.
"There is no way we are going to have 100% consensus on everything."
ANC MPs are in a position to easily outvote their opposition colleagues on a range of issues in the draft law - which has been dubbed the secrecy bill by rights campaigners - that remain the subject of intense debate.
These include whether all state organs would have the right to classify information and whether the bill contains a special defence to allow journalists, who face prosecution and lengthy prison terms for publishing state secrets, to argue that they did so in the public interest.
Public interest defence
On the last point, Burgess said the time had come for the opposition to accept that it would not persuade the ANC to include a so-called public interest defence as its research had clearly shown that this was not common practice around the world.
"The ANC is digging its heels in on the basis that we cannot find support for that in international best practice," he told MPs.
Burgess added that the law already protected whistle-blowers who made public classified information to expose crime.
The ANC had held to the position that journalists did not need the same protection because those who had worrisome information should approach the police, not the media.
The Inkatha Freedom Party's Mario Oriani-Ambrosini countered that the public interest defence was far more widespread around the world than the ANC would allow. He and other opposition MPs called for further debate on those and other issues, and argued that Burgess did not understand normal parliamentary process for finalising legislation.
Steve Swart, from the African Christian Democratic Party, said it was not acceptable to vote on individual clauses before considering the overall implication of proposed amendments for a bill as a whole.
The DA's Dene Smuts agreed, saying: "Voting comes right at the end. First we seek wisdom and talk to each other."
The call exasperated ANC MP Nkosinathi Fihla.
"Are we going to be discussing this for the whole year," he asked.
The discussions were to continue after lunch.
Deadlines for finalising the bill have come and gone since last year, when the wide powers the bill seeks to give the state to classify information sparked a national outcry.
It was condemned by academics, activists, journalists and former Cabinet ministers as an attempt to muzzle the media and curtail criticism of the government.
In response, the government agreed to remove provisions allowing for information to be classified in the "national interest" or for commercial information to be kept secret.
Critics believe the bill remains unconstitutional and if passed in its current form, it is likely to be challenged in court.