MPs contemplate info bill target
Cape Town - Lawmakers on Thursday struggled to agree on the notion of precisely what the protection of information bill tries to prevent and who it tries to punish.
The issue has prompted days and nights of laboured deliberation on whether "hostile activity" belongs in the bill, which is undergoing considerable redrafting after it triggered a public outcry.
MPs from all parties agree that obtaining and disclosing top secret information for the purpose of espionage is a crime punishable with not less than 15 and not more than 25 years in prison.
The African National Congress has insisted that espionage applies only to foreign intelligence agencies, not to the "enemy within" trying to destabilise the country or supplying information to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
"Hostile activity deals with prejudice to the state regardless of who the actors are," ANC MP Luwellyn Landers said.
David Maynier, from the Democratic Alliance, called for the notion to be removed from the bill, handled under the heading of espionage or expressly limited to disclosure to "a non-state actor engaged in hostile activity".
If not, he warned, it could be abused to persecute the media - one of the main concerns about the bill that drove calls for a redraft - or even opposition parties.
"We must specify the mischief we are trying to prevent. As the clause stands, it could criminalise disclosure to a media group even if was done in the public interest," he said.
"It would be possible perhaps for a malicious prosecutor to argue that News24 had been aiding or abetting a hostile activity. If the concern is al-Qaeda, let's legislate for that."
Landers suggested it should be left up to the courts to decide whether something, including a media report, constituted prejudice to the state.
To this, the DA's Dene Smuts replied: "No, we don't want to go all the way to the court."
She said the party would not agree to harsh penalties for the crime until it was understood to be restricted to "the intentional contribution to a hostile activity".
ANC members said on the sidelines of the deliberations that they wanted the bill to deal not only with threats from outside the country, but from within in the form of errant or former intelligence agents.
This worry also informed its reluctance to heed calls to restrict the instances where information could be classified to protect the national security.
Throughout the week, ANC MPs have called for discussion on this point to be delayed until the party has finalised its position.
Dennis Dlomo, the special adviser to State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, said despite opposition the government was adamant that information-peddling should remain on the list of acts from which national security should be safeguarded through classification.
"We feel very strongly about information peddling," he said.
Dlomo said it was established fact that governments, nations and regions risked damage when people deliberately fed the intelligence community false information.
The example most often used by him and ANC colleagues is the leaked 2006 Special Browse Mole report that alleged there was a foreign-backed plot to bring Jacob Zuma to power and warned of insurrection if he did not become president.
Emergency surgery in Parliament
"We are not talking about the media, but about the threat posed by former intelligence operatives in South Africa and outside peddling half-truths," Dlomo said.
Opposition lawmakers believe the ruling party is primarily seeking to protect itself from plots and being destabilised.
The committee resumes its work next Wednesday.
Despite the remaining disagreements, lawmakers are confident they can produce an acceptable official secrets law by the deadline of late September, contrary to the opinion of academics that "emergency surgery" in Parliament would not work.
Opposition MPs said with relief this week that the current version was a far cry from that of two months ago, when the bill was seen as a regressive, unconstitutional attempt to muzzle the media and shroud the government's workings in secrecy by allowing all departments to classify information.
They have reached agreement with the ANC that only intelligence agencies will have the power to classify information and that attempts to use classification to cover up corruption will be severely punished.