Kasrils slams information bill

2010-08-10 18:30

Cape Town - Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils has called on the government to rethink the controversial protection of information bill and the ruling party's proposal for a media tribunal that reports to Parliament.

Kasrils, in an interview with Talk Radio 702, said the government must fight a tendency among ministers to clamp down on transparency and "improve" the bill that is seen as an attack on media freedom and a return to apartheid-era repression.

He took aim at Cecil Burgess, the chair of the ad hoc committee handling the bill, as well as Parliament's joint standing committee on intelligence, for saying South Africa was going overboard in pursuit of openness.

"Let's hear critique of the bill and lets improve it," he said.

"I was appalled when I heard a report that (...) the chair of the intelligence oversight committee said that we are becoming obsessed with openness.

"I was appalled and that's the message that unfortunately we tend to get from some government ministers and government must fight against that tendency."


Kasrils said the government must go back to the drawing board and include safeguards to protect the media he insisted on working into the bill when an earlier version was drafted on his watch.

"What we decided in the closing days of the Mbeki government (...) they were redrafting and they strengthened this particular factor of giving coverage for investigative journalists in search of the corrupt and (to) the whistleblowers."

He was referring to the so-called public interest defence which allows journalists to argue they disclosed classified information for the general good.

The bill currently before Parliament imposes penalties of up to 25 years in prison for journalists who publish information classified as top secret.

Kasrils said he believed South Africa needed a bill prescribing the classification of information to protect national security, but said the administration of former president Thabo Mbeki never intended a media clampdown.

'A valid concern'

The government last week insisted there was no attempt to muzzle the media but Kasrils, who served as intelligence minister from 2004 until Mbeki was recalled in 2008, said he believed this was "absolutely a valid concern".

He added that he believed there was a need for a media tribunal but insisted it must be independent.

"It is the same thing (...) It is very important that we have something, but the big argument is that is absolutely independent from government. How on earth can people have confidence if they feel that ministers, that government are going to control it?"

Opposition MPs sitting on the ad hoc committee on the information bill committee on Tuesday recalled that during Kasrils's tenure he asked the drafters of the bill to rework it to include the public interest defence.

"The minister was in favour of the public interest defence," the Democratic Alliance's Dene Smuts pointed out, and asked that the earlier deliberations be taken into account.

Burgess said it would be "inappropriate" to look at the two versions of the bill together and reminded MPs that "we have a new minister".

But he concluded that he could not stop MPs from raising arguments that were used some two years ago when the other version, which also stirred controversy, was being debated.

The draft legislation was reintroduced under the new administration.