ANC widens definition of national security
Cape Town - ANC lawmakers on Wednesday proposed increasing the instances in which information can be classified to protect national security in a divisive new development on the protection of information bill.
Raising the spectre of WikiLeaks, ruling party MP Luwellyn Landers called for secrecy to apply to protect South Africa not only from attack, but also from information-peddling and the exposure of economic dossiers and state security matters.
Asked by the Democratic Alliance why he wanted to insert three new causes for classification into the bill, Landers replied: "How can the exposure of a matter of state security not affect our national security?
"If a matter of state security of ours is exposed we cannot just say it is part of those things, Julien Assange and that."
His colleague Anneliese van Wyk added that the definition of national security was being broadened in democracies around the world, as the realisation had dawned that health crisis and food shortages could threaten the stability of a country.
"If we don't broaden our definition the next generation will suffer."
The issue of state security matters raises a red flag to the opposition in part because of the government's increasing reluctance to provide information on issues like President Jacob Zuma's flight schedule because they argue it would pose a security threat.
Economic and scientific secrets
Earlier attempts to include economic and scientific secrets in the ambit of the bill greatly contributed to the public outrage around it.
In response to public submissions, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele agreed late last year that it should be cut from the draft legislation.
The DA argued that it was wrong to seek to reintroduce it now, along with developmental issues like health, food and water, because the ANC agreed last month that the bill would only allow the intelligence agencies to classify information and this was not their ambit.
"It is not the business of the intelligence agency to sort out health crisis," DA MP David Maynier said.
"In a democratic country the brief of intelligence agencies needs to be limited to national security threats. We do not need the spooks in this country to be going through the bottom drawers of the department of health."
Landers suggested that the opposition feared that allowing classification of health, scientific and economic matters would enable the state to hide corruption and other wrongdoing.
He said this would not happen as the bill would provide for penalties for officials who classified information to cover up graft.
Landers did not oblige the DA and the Inkatha Freedom Party's requests to define information peddling.
The inclusion of the concept in the bill has drawn objections in the past, when the ruling party argued that it was necessary to prevent things like the leaking of the 2006 Operation Browse Mole report that warned of potential insurrection should Jacob Zuma not become president.
The proposal to extend the definition of national security to include these categories of harm dismayed the Right2Know Campaign which has called for it to be narrowed down.
"This speaks to our deepest concerns that we feel these concessions in the last few months have been very positive but the real meat of the bill attempts to expand the power of organs of state security," said the coordinator of the campaign, Murray Hunter.
"And it is unacceptable that we should see MPs drafting a law that will erode further our ability to hold our spies to account."
Hunter has warned that despite the concessions made in June seeming to limit the classification to conventional official secrets, the bill would still allow government to classify almost any matter it chose by defining it as a state security issue.
As it stands, the draft law prescribes prison sentences of up to 15 years for disclosing such matters.
Deliberations on the bill will continue on Thursday.