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."
- SAPA
Read more on:    right2know  |  legislation  |  info bill
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