Possible info bill defence welcomed
Johannesburg - The possible inclusion of a public interest defence in the Protection of State Information Bill was welcomed by the SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) and the Right2Know Campaign on Wednesday.
"We look forward to further progress in ensuring that this bill is a democratic instrument for the management of sensitive information, rather than a tool to suppress the free exchange of information and ideas that is central to our constitutional dispensation," Sanef chair Mondli Makhanya said.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe discussed the controversial bill with Parliament's Press Gallery Association on Tuesday.
Motlanthe suggested there could be a "meeting point" on a public interest defence, as the talks with Sanef had produced a clear understanding that it would in always be up to the courts to decide whether it applied in a particular case.
He sought to assure journalists the bill would not be "rammed through" Parliament.
Makhanya said Sanef and others had submitted to Parliament arguments that a public interest defence clause would not place journalists above the law.
It would "set out carefully defined grounds for disclosure of classified information" in certain circumstances. These circumstances included situations where evidence of significant incompetence, criminality, wrongdoing, abuse of authority or hypocrisy on the part of government officials was revealed.
"Of course it would be up to our courts to adjudicate whether disclosure by journalists or other citizens met these clear standards, or not," Makhanya said.
The Right 2 Know Campaign also welcomed Motlanthe's comments, saying a public interest defence was crucial to afford protection to those who exposed state secrets in the interest of social justice.
"We view this as an encouraging sign that dialogue is still possible to ensure that the constitutional imperative of access to information is not undermined," it said in a statement.
The pressure group added, however, that there were structural problems with the bill that went far beyond the present lack of a public interest defence.
"It is crucial that we have further dialogue over the potential for the current draft of the Secrecy Bill to create an overall chilling effect for access to information and freedom of expression."
The ANC previously rejected calls for the inclusion of a public interest defence clause in the bill. As the bill stands, disclosing classified information is a crime punishable with prison sentences ranging from five to 25 years, depending on the level of classification and whether espionage is involved.
The bill was scheduled for debate in the National Assembly in September, but was temporarily withdrawn from the parliamentary programme at the last minute.