ConCourt battle on cards over info bill

2011-11-16 22:39
Parliament - State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele on Wednesday dispelled any hope that the state would heed pressure to include a "reckless" public interest defence in the protection of information bill.

Cwele told the often heated National Assembly debate on the bill the ANC had agreed to many changes to the draft law but would not budge on calls to allow publication of secret information because it was in the public interest, or had already found its way into the public domain.

"For the completeness of record and for the truth's own sake, it needs to be highlighted that there are two demands that have been made that we have found impossible to accommodate in this bill.

"These are public interest defence and public domain defence."

The vote on the bill was delayed because the Inkatha Freedom Party tabled 123 amendments, forcing Parliament to reconstitute an ad hoc drafting committee until next Tuesday to consider them.

The proposals were dismissed by Cwele as mere "filibustering", and it is uncertain that any changes will be made in the next week.

When it comes back before the National Assembly, it is expected to be passed comfortably by the ANC majority despite a groundswell of public concern that it will inhibit media reporting and whistle-blowing on corruption.

It will then go to the National Council of Provinces next year and the ANC has suggested further amendments could be tabled there.

But Cwele's stance on a public interest defence all but guarantees it will eventually be challenged in the Constitutional Court by media houses, rights groups and opposition parties who say without such a clause transparency will be sacrificed for excessive state secrecy.

This point was argued by Cope MP Phillip Dexter, who said: "The bill as it is crafted does not create the right balance between those two things."

He dismissed the ANC's claim that a public interest defence would allow the widespread leaking of state secrets and said its true purpose was to prevent abuse of the law to cover up state wrongdoing.

"The public interest defence is supposed to allow that there is a final safeguard when the state goes rotten."

African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart warned that its absence "renders the bill open to Constitutional Court challenge".

The bill criminalises the possession and the publication of classified information, and punishes the latter with between five to 25 years in prison depending on the level of classification.

But Cwele said no other country in the world allowed those accused of divulging state secrets to argue in court that they had done so in the public interest.

"We have looked at international best practice and there is no country which practises such reckless practice."

The bill was brought to the assembly for debate after a two-month delay announced in September amid reports that the ruling party was divided over passing the legislation in its present form.

The ANC said it needed time for more consultation and invited further public submissions, but two months later it has brought the bill to the National Assembly unchanged.

By this week, the ANC's parliamentary offices had received 47 further submissions on the bill - most of them from private citizens who oppose it.

Opposition parties have dismissed the consultation process as a farce, and all, including the Pan Africanist Congress, said on Wednesday they would not support the bill.

To the ANC's ire, Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier invoked Nelson Mandela. He said if the former president had been in the legislature he would have sided with the opposition in rejecting "a full-scale legislative assault on the freedom of the press and other media in South Africa".

His colleague Dene Smuts said many regressive provisions had been removed from the bill in the past year but at least three remained that raised suspicion.

She referred to clause 49 which makes disclosure of any state security matter punishable with up to 10 years in jail and warned it could provide cover for a corrupt intelligence service spying on political opponents.

Read more on:    cope  |  da  |  pac  |  phillip dexter  |  dene smuts  |  siyabonga cwele  |  david maynier  |  info bill  |  media

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