Activists seek rewrite of info bill

2011-09-20 18:01

Cape Town - The Right2Know Campaign said on Tuesday it would press the ANC to rewrite the protection of information bill.

It vowed to step up protest against the legislation if it emerged that the ruling party had held the bill back purely for political expedience.

"We will see how serious they are, we have to give that a chance," the campaign's spokesperson Dale McKinley said.

"If it is not a serious undertaking, if it is just about politics, we will step up our campaign."

The ANC took an eleventh-hour decision on Monday to postpone the scheduled National Assembly vote on the bill.

McKinley said the ANC's national executive committee (NEC) was clearly divided on the bill, and he hoped the party did not use the delay merely to bring dissidents in line.

Murray Hunter, national co-ordinator of the campaign, said rights groups demanded a "serious redraft" to include a public interest defence and limit the powers of the state security cluster.

He said recent news reports of abuse of the intelligence services for political spying showed security ministries wielded extraordinary powers.

"They are using state resources to fight factional wars and this is of serious concern to any democrat," Hunter said.

"The question is: do you want to give them a bigger stick?"

The Sunday press has reported that State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, whose office has driven the bill, was trying to sideline the country's three top intelligence officials after they objected to surveillance of Cabinet ministers.

Opposing factions

Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts, a member of the ad hoc committee that drafted the bill, said the decision to delay might well be linked to unhappiness in the ruling party about political abuse of the intelligence services.

She said it appeared likely the ANC was divided over clause 49 of the draft act, which imposes penalties of up to 20 years in prison for exposing classified information relating to the intelligence services.

Rights groups and the opposition believe the clause goes too far in shielding the intelligence community from scrutiny, contradicts other provisions, and could prove unconstitutional.

"Our biggest problem would be the NEC's biggest problem," Smuts said.

"It would have divided the NEC because the opposing factions sit in the NEC."

The ANC has denied reports that its top ranks are divided over the bill. Instead the party said it was responding to requests from unnamed interest groups to make further submissions on the bill.

Cosatu said it would continue to press the ANC, a formal ally, to redraft the bill to protect whistleblowers who published classified information to reveal wrongdoing by the state.

It mooted a public interest defence as a sound mechanism to do this. This is also a key demand of the opposition, media and rights groups.

Without it, University of Cape Town constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos said on Monday, "whistleblowers would be either suicidal or exceedingly stupid to try and leak wrongly classified documents, as that whistleblower would face a prison sentence of up to 25 years".

Smuts said the opposition would fight for a public interest defence, changes to the offences section of the bill that prohibits disclosure of state secrets, as well as to clause 49, if the bill were referred back to a parliamentary committee.

But the ANC chief whip's office said it was not a foregone conclusion that the bill would be sent back to MPs for amendment.

This added to confusion about how the party intended to use the delay, which was expected to last about three months before the bill was put to the vote in Parliament.

ANC caucus spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said the chief whip's office would soon indicate which formal channels those who wanted to make further submissions on the bill should use.

Read more on:    cosatu  |  right2know  |  siyabonga cwele  |  pierre de vos  |  dene smuts  |  info bill  |  media

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