Asmal urges citizens to reject info bill
Cape Town - Former minister Kader Asmal has urged South Africans to reject the protection of information bill and warned the ANC that rushing it through Parliament would destroy trust in the democratic process.
Asmal said he had hoped the weight of public opposition to the so-called "secrecy bill" would by now have persuaded the relevant ministers and MPs "to take this appalling measure back to the drawing board".
"Since this has not happened, my conscience will not let my silence be misunderstood. I ask all South Africans to join me in rejecting this measure in its entirety," he said in a letter sent to the Right 2 Know Campaign, a coalition heading opposition to the legislation.
"The bill is so deeply flawed that tinkering with its preamble by accepting a minor change here or there will not alter its fundamental nature - that it does not pay sufficient attention to the nature of freedom of expression.
"The Constitution is quite clear - in section 16 it embraces this right as including freedom of the press and other media. But the Constitution goes further, taking into account recent developments in that it guarantees freedom to receive or impart information or ideas."
Asmal said he was issuing an appeal as "a loyal member of the ANC who played some role in the drafting of this section" to the government, to withdraw the bill and set up an independent committee to draft a pared-down bill to protect state secrets.
"My fear or anxiety is that if the bill is forced through the ad hoc committee [drafting the bill], people whose judgment I trust will lose faith in the democratic process."
The bill, which imposes minimum prison sentence for being in possession of and publishing classified information, is widely expected to be heading for constitutional challenge.
Cosatu last month became the latest critic to threaten to refer it to the Constitutional Court, if it were adopted without major amendments.
But Asmal said it was wrong that judges should do lawmakers' work.
"It is unsatisfactory to expect the Constitutional Court to do the work that Parliament should be doing," he said in the letter dated June 2, but received by the Right 2 Know Campaign on Thursday.
"I feel that the executive has not given sufficient attention to the constitutional provisions and the way that the limitation of this right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society."
He said there was "no shame" in withdrawing the bill and going back to the drawing board.
"If this does not happen, civil society will deservedly ask for the maximum public support to oppose the bill in other ways."
Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils has also called for a rethink on the legislation, calling it "too broad and unfocused" and the penalties proposed "harsh".
The ANC-dominated drafting committee has called for a two-month extension of its June 24 deadline to finalise the bill, after Cosatu joined the groundswell of opposition to the measure. There are however no signs that ruling party MPs are ready to make concessions on clauses seen as unconstitutional.
Activists say the bill is not only an attack on media freedom, but would deter whistle-blowing and deny the poor information on service delivery, by allowing all government departments to classify documents.