Editors in last-ditch appeal to MPs
Johannesburg - A group of editors and the SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) made an 11th hour plea to ANC MPs to reject the protection of state information bill when it comes up for the vote in the National Assembly at 14:00 on Tuesday.
In a statement, run on the front pages of some publications like The Times and Beeld, the editors said: "Mark this day. Depending on the actions of the 400 MPs in the National Assembly at 2pm, it will end as a day of triumph or of shame for our adolescent democracy.
"Every MP who presses the green button to vote 'yes' for the protection of state information bill will at that moment take personal responsibility for the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid that dismantles an aspect of our democracy - a betrayal that will haunt them forever."
The editors said the bill came amid escalating attacks by the ANC on reporters, newspapers and the freedom of the press.
"The spreading culture of self-enrichment, either corrupt or merely inappropriate, makes scrutiny by a free media which is fuelled by whistleblowers who have the public interest at heart more essential than ever since 1994.
"If members of the ANC cannot muster the courage to defy their party's leaders and repudiate the bill, it will again - as under apartheid - be up to those willing to go to jail for a very long time to expose the abuse of state power."
The editors described the bill as "the wall behind which much evil is hidden" with anyone who leaked, published or possessed a secret facing a possible jail sentence of 20 years without the right to motivate their actions in mitigation.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe had acknowledged that the proposed "public interest defence" would have to be tested by a judge and almost every submission during Parliament's public hearings on the bill called for a last-resort escape clause, but still the ANC had refused.
The bill was presented and withdrawn by the then minister of intelligence Ronnie Kasrils in 2008.
Last year, President Jacob Zuma's Cabinet refocused the draft and sent it back to a "more pliable Parliament with instructions to ensure its adoption", the editors continued.
They acknowledged that the ANC had accepted over 120 amendments which greatly improved the draft - including a narrowing of the justification for sealing state information and enhanced provisions for oversight and appeal.
Public interest clause
"But without a public interest clause, this framework for secrecy remains a massive brake on the free flow of information to the people in whose name a tightly protected elite purports to govern."
Opposition parties said they would oppose the bill, but ANC members would be required by the rules of party discipline to be present for the vote and to support it.
"We, the editors of the aforementioned South African newspapers, appeal to ANC MPs who will vote today to put the future of your country ahead of your own future in the party and reject this appalling bill."
If not enough MPs did "the right thing", the editors urged that the Cabinet redraft the bill with a public interest defence clause as it went through its next step, the National Council of Provinces.
They also asked Zuma to exercise his right to submit the bill to the Constitutional Court for ratification before signing it into law.
"If none of these things happen, it will be up to civil society and the political opposition to ask that court to declare it the abomination it is."
The statement was signed by the Times, Business Day, The Herald, Sowetan, Daily Despatch, Die Burger, Cape Times, Beeld, The Star, The Mercury, Pretoria News, The Witness, Volksblad, Die Son and Daily Sun.
A plea from Sanef to MPs, which was published on the front page of The Star, said bill in its current form would choke the flow of vital information and restrict crucial accountability mechanisms.
Sanef lamented the absence of a public interest defence, and the "blanket secrecy" afforded intelligence structures, leaving little recourse when they abused their authority.
"The first step is to reject the bill by voting against it in the National Assembly today," Sanef said.
The Sun newspaper, which is usually associated with parochial issues and unusual mystical events, ran a truncated version of the editors' statement on page two.
Newcomer The New Age also appealed to MPs not to pass the bill.
"You don't have to vote along party lines (after all, your vote is secret). You should vote with your conscience. It is not too late for common sense to prevail."
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