ANC sticks to guns on info bill
Cape Town - Opposition parties pleaded in vain on Thursday that South Africans were going to rue the wide powers the protection of information bill would give intelligence services, as ruling party MPs proceeded with an apparent bid to rush the draft law through Parliament.
The Inkatha Freedom Party's Mario Oriani-Ambrosini told colleagues the country's spies had a history of abusing their powers and it would be unwise to give them further opportunity to do so.
"What we are setting in place here in a South African context, in which there is a huge security apparatus bloated by apartheid, ANC and the self-governing territories... [which] has already been deviant in the Zuma case and many other cases.
"If we give them this power we may be setting the foundation of processes which we are going to regret and we are going to identify as such when it is going to be too late," he said.
"I don't know if there is anything one can say or plead for a measure of reconsideration."
He was asking that lawmakers downgrade the regulations the state security minister must draft for other departments on when and how to classify information, to the status of guidelines.
The opposition has for months protested that the bill seeks to perpetuate the practices of the Minimum Information Security System (Miss), the post-apartheid guidelines seen as allowing the intelligence services to exercise unhealthy control over information in state departments.
On the same principle, Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts asked that the protection of valuable information be removed from the ambit of the draft law, leaving it to deal purely with matters of intelligence and national security.
"A situation where the NIA (National Intelligence Agency) has access to and a certain amount of control over our government information is wrong," she said.
The ANC chairperson of the ad hoc committee, Cecil Burgess, said he was not prepared to entertain old arguments that had so far failed to convince the majority and proceeded to put contentious issues to the vote.
ANC MPs then used their majority vote to retain clause 7 of the bill , which allows the minister the power to regulate the classification of all information in all state departments.
The opposition won a concession however on clause 6, where the ANC agreed to balance the requirements of national security with the need for transparency in a democratic society.
"It is our view that these amendments will align clause six with the limitation provided with in clause 36 of our Constitution," ANC MP Luwellyn Landers said.
After months of deadlock between the opposition and ANC on the bill, Burgess signalled earlier this week that the committee would move to formal deliberations and vote on areas of disagreement.
The move has alarmed rights campaigners who accuse the ruling party of trying to ram the bill through Parliament and reneging on concessions it made in the run-up to last week's municipal elections.
The Right2Know Campaign said it would mobilise poor communities in a revived campaign to prevent the bill being adopted in its current form.
"The Right2Know Campaign is calling for a new period of action to stop the secrecy bill. We call on all those who are seriously concerned by this turn of events to make their collective voices heard now."
It said the bill "threatens to take our country back to the dark days of secrecy" and urged the ANC to go back to the drawing board to draft a law in line with the Constitution.
The bill has been condemned as a bid to curtail investigative journalism because it imposes prison sentences of up to 25 years for anybody who reveals top secret information.
But activists say that by shrouding government information in secrecy it would also affect the rights of poor communities waiting for service delivery.
"This bill is bad news for everybody," Idasa analyst Judith February said, adding that it was "ripe for constitutional challenge".
"If this is passed, it will have serious implications, particularly for poor communities and their right to information on issues of service delivery and corruption.
"It will effectively close off a layer of the state to scrutiny and contribute to the marginalisation of the poor."
The Congress of SA Trade Unions said it was closely studying the bill because it appeared that it still posed fundamental problems.