'Mixed messages' over info bill

2010-11-10 20:04

Cape Town - The Right2Know campaign on Wednesday expressed concern at the "mixed messages" emanating from the parliamentary committee dealing with the protection of information bill and an apparent rush to pass the bill into law.

Committee chairperson Cecil Burgess said last week that the bill would not be finalised this year, the campaign said in a statement.

Yet, the committee had been meeting urgently and set themselves the task of producing a "final consideration of the amendments to the protection of information bill" at their meeting on Friday November 12.

"The Right2Know campaign notes that the committee has found little consensus and has - to date - failed to address major concerns expressed by civil society.

"We urge the committee not to rush their deliberations and to apply their minds to the bill and the objections of the thousands of South Africans that have endorsed the Right2Know campaign and marched against the bill in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town."

If the bill was passed with the current agreed amendments, it still posed a threat to democracy and would make South Africa a "society of secrets", it said.

Power imbalance

The bill - with its current agreed amendments - did not limit secrecy to core state bodies in the security sector, such as the police, defence and intelligence agencies.

Rather, it gave all heads of government institutions (including local government and parastatals) the power to classify information at will as secret and exempted the intelligence agencies from any public scrutiny.

The current amended bill still applied penalties for unauthorised disclosure to society at large, not only to those officials responsible for keeping secrets, as was the case in other democracies.

It still criminalised the legitimate disclosure of secrets in the public interest, potentially undermining the oversight role of Parliament and other stakeholders like civil society, the media and whistle blowers.

Instead of the onus being on the state to justify why classification was necessary, the current bill placed the onus on the citizen to show why declassification should occur - a situation which, given the relative power imbalance between state and citizenry, was patently unfair.

"The Right2Know campaign will continue to mobilise and organise to defend our hard-won democratic rights," it said.

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