Info bill relief for media

2011-08-24 11:43

Cape Town - The ANC agreed on Tuesday to rewrite a clause in the protection of information bill that had been deemed one of the biggest remaining threats to media freedom in the legislation.

It accepted a recommendation from parliamentary law adviser Ntuthuzelo Vanara to narrow clause 42 of the bill. This makes it a crime punishable with up to 20 years in prison to reveal state secrets in the reasonable knowledge that in can further hostile activity.

The clause adds "or prejudice the republic", to the great concern of activists and opposition parties, who warned it was too wide and open to abuse to muzzle the media.

Vanara advised "greater clarity and certainty could be achieved by expressly limiting the prejudice to national security". The ANC accepted the amendment.

Threats to freedom of information remain

The move was welcomed by the Open Democracy Advice Centre (Odac), which had been at the forefront of protest against the bill.

"It's a very significant move in the direction of constitutionality and it should be applauded," said Odac director Alison Tilley.

Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said: "This takes care of such a very, very big problem. If we insert national security, then that danger it holds, especially for our journalists of being locked up for 20 years, disappears."

Following intense redrafting in recent weeks, observers believed two outright threats to freedom of information remained in the bill. One was the absence of a public interest defence to protect whistleblowers and reporters who revealed classified information.

The second was a provision forbidding the disclosure of any "state security matter".

It had been termed a relic from apartheid days by the DA, with the party's David Maynier saying it was used by the regime to stop the press reporting the names of activists detained without trial.

No resolution was reached on that issue on Tuesday. Deliberations on the bill were expected to continue throughout the week. So far there had been two other important agreements between the ANC and the opposition.

'Opt-in'

On Monday the ruling party delivered on a pledge to restrict the application of the bill to the intelligence and security bodies, putting an end to earlier, bitterly contested plans to allow all organs of state to classify information.

The new application clause allows a so-called "opt-in" for other state departments. But it is limited by the provision that they need permission from the minister of state security, and that this much be published in the Government Gazette.

The ANC also agreed to narrow the definition of national security as cause for classification. This too was welcomed, with constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos saying it brought the draft secrets act closer to constitutionality.

But De Vos warned that whether or not the bill afforded protection to whistleblowers who published information that was wrongly classified, would also determine whether ultimately it passed constitutional muster.

MPs were expected to complete the drafting process by September 15.

- SAPA

Read more on:    anc  |  david maynier  |  dene smuts  |  media  |  legislation  |  info bill
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