MPs fail to salvage info bill: Right2Know

2011-08-29 22:25

Cape Town - The Right2Know Campaign on Monday said changes made to the protection of information bill by lawmakers have failed to deliver legislation befitting a democracy and called for drafting to resume from scratch.

"Parliament wants us to accept a secrecy bill that is only half bad - but the bill is fundamentally flawed," the group said on Monday.

It said despite "emergency surgery" by MPs over the past month, the bill still offered only scant protection for whistleblowers and none whatsoever for ordinary citizens or journalists who expose state secrets that reveal government wrongdoing.

The reworked bill also failed to limit state secrecy to matters of national security because it retains a clause prohibiting, under pain of lengthy prison sentences, the disclosure of "any state security matter".

Right2Know, which was born last August in opposition to the bill, said this would hinder oversight of intelligence activities because it allowed for any of it to be classified.

The organisation has welcomed restrictions to the definition of national security as grounds for classification and to the application of the act.

Toxic provision

After months of bitter wrangling, the ANC agreed last week that only the intelligence, security and police services would have the power to classify state information.

But Right2Know said this concession was bedevilled by a provision that other state organs could be granted permission by the state security minister to file secret information provided they demonstrate "good cause".

"This toxic provision has the potential to covertly undermine the hard-won limitations and provide securocrats with powers to politicise any ensuing review or opposition," it said.

Perhaps the biggest concern for the organisation, as well as opposition parties and other civil rights groups, is the absence of a public interest defence to protect those who disclose classified information for the greater good.

"Effectively, this bill still threatens to charge whistleblowers on state security matters as foreign spies."

The issue will be debated in the ad hoc committee drafting the bill on Tuesday, three days before the ANC wants to finalise the legislation so that the National Assembly can vote on it before mid-September.

It will be closely watched by Cosatu, which reiterated a call for the protection of whistleblowers on Friday and has said it would challenge the bill in the Constitutional Court if it falls short of its demands.

Compromise impossible

Cosatu's threat has been credited with wringing the concessions of recent weeks from the ruling party.

But prominent legal experts have cautioned that MPs' best efforts could not transform the bill into conventional official secrets legislation because its original conception was too different.

Opposition MPs have however been adamant that they could engineer a workable compromise.

With mere days to go before drafting is completed, the Right2Know Campaign said this had proved impossible.

It said the process should be started anew without the involvement of the state security ministry, who has sent a ministerial adviser to all sessions.

"The political parties insist that the bill can be salvaged by tinkering with its clauses, achieving piecemeal, clause-by-clause gains, until the secrecy bill transforms into progressive legislation.

"This undermines repeated calls from the public and civil society for the bill to be withdrawn and redrafted in earnest, this time with meaningful public consultation and without input from the ministry of state security whose powers would be regulated by the bill."

  • JCWR56 - 2011-08-30 06:48

    @Amos - i can only believe from your comment that you are involved in or are a party to the drafting of this obscene bill. SA is not at war with anyone, we don't have secret nuclear programs anymore that need "protecting", what does SA have that can be considered top secret and not fit for public domain?. There can be little if any information that we as the tax paying public should not be allowed access to. the logical conclusion for the justification of bludgeoning this bill thru parliament can only be for use by miscreants in government determined to cover up their involvement in unsavoury "deals" be they arms, theft of tax payer money, corruption etc. i'm sure the intention is short term, cover up what they have done since '94 then they'll be good chaps going forward. the problem with this is it makes it too easy for them to become habitual offenders (if they aren't already). instead of trying to throw off the perception of corruption and set an example for the rest of the world to show that not all African states are morally bankrupt, corrupt and savage, our government seems hell bent in taking part in exactly those acts. Wake up

      Stuart - 2011-08-30 07:07

      well said

      Pencilgraffiti - 2011-08-30 08:43

      The government is fighting a 70's war.... If the bill gets passed then they will permanently cut all relations with the media which will destroy S.A.'s international reputation - It already being quite flimsy. Whistleblowers will always be around.. They were there during apartheid, they will be there during ANC-tyd. If the government bans a report to be published via newspapers it will go out via internet with no direct source. THE INFO WILL GET OUT... It'll only be harder and at the cost of the innocent. Ultimately S.A. will lose out on people, credibility and financial stability. Sad thing is there is no reason for this besides them covering up their corruption... which they will protect at ALL cost - even if that cost is your life

  • Jedi knight - 2011-08-30 08:57

    Amos, while I agree with the fact that the US has a very much more stingent view on this matter, you fail to see that we are not at war , have never been attacked by terrorists except during the "struggle", yet almost every person in any politacle position seems to have the right to have sometimes dozens of body guards, Why?. We are not at a time of war. The question is ,are these persons afraid or they have something to hide. If they are afraid get out of politics or deliver, and get off the ego high horse that has been created.Pesronally I believe it is both..

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