Information bill may be narrowed

2010-11-16 16:38
Cape Town - MPs handling the contentious protection of information bill on Tuesday moved towards agreement that its ambit would be restricted to matters of national security and intelligence.

The initially vast scope of the bill was one of the thorny issues that created an outcry and prompted one opposition MP to say that it could be used to justify the classification of "a grocery list".

The ANC chairperson of the ad hoc committee drafting the bill, Cecil Burgess, asked members to study section 198 of the Constitution, which deals with national security and says it must be pursued in compliance with international law.

National interest removed

"I don't think there is any doubt now that what we are dealing with is a law with major implications for national security. It is actually focused on issues of national security, that is why the bill was changed and national interest was removed to draw the bill along the lines of national security."

"I would like the honourable members to consider that, because it is something that is going to go into the preamble of the bill."

Burgess later downplayed his statement as referring to the "small matter" of finding a definition for national security.

But it follows a submission by State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele last month that dramatically narrows the ruling party's criteria of the kind of information that can be kept secret by the state.

In a second significant shift, Burgess suggested that any application to access information classified under the proposed legislation would be done following the process set out in the Protection of Access to Information Act of 2000 (PAIA).

This would go some way in solving the riddle of how to harmonise the bill with the PAIA, which is considered unique in the world in the access it allows citizens to information held both by the state and private bodies.

Opposition MPs welcomed Burgess's proposal, which came after two lengthy and inclusive presentations by state law advisors on reconciling the two pieces of legislation.

"It is an excellent idea that all access be channelled through PAIA because it ensures constitutionality and resolves the problem of whether PAIA prevails," Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said.

She suggested that cross-referencing the two bills would also have the benefit of extending PAIA's public interest override to the Protection of Information Bill.

No protection for journalists

One of the biggest objections to the draft law has been the absence of protection for journalists publishing classified information in the public interest.

This lead to the widespread perception that the bill was a regressive attempt to cultivate greater state secrecy and curtail media freedom.

"One great benefit of channelling applications via PAIA is that the section 46 public interest override then applies and the information officer has to release where evidence of contravention of the law and public interest outweighs," Smuts said.

Opposition parties however asked for time to mull all the implications of the proposal.

"It is one of those epiphany moments that one captures and needs to go back to the office and see how it will work out in the opus," Mario Oriani Ambrosini from the Inkatha Freedom Party quipped.

The ANC has been adamant this far that there would be no special protection for journalists in the form of a public interest override and State law advisor Enver Daniels stressed on Tuesday that the one contained in PAIA "is a very limited override".

Lawmakers will continue their deliberations next week, but have acknowledged that they will not complete work on the bill this year.

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