New information bill changes
Cape Town - The state law adviser on Tuesday presented MPs with more than 60 pages of suggested further changes to the protection of information bill as they held their first deliberations on the controversial legislation in the new year.
Wrangling over the bill that is widely viewed as an attempt to increase state secrecy, is expected to continue for some time, though according to the parliamentary programme the draft law is meant to be finalised this week.
"We need a year," Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said.
Cecil Burgess, chairperson of the ad hoc committee processing the bill, refused to pronounce on the time needed to finish the job.
He said he had been forced to draft a tight schedule as the lifespan of the committee expires soon, but could request to have it extended yet again.
The changes made by the state law advisor leaves open the question of how to reconcile the bill with the liberal Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).
This suggests a possible retreat from a proposal made by Burgess - and welcomed by the opposition - last year that all requests to declassify information be handled through PAIA.
The cross-referencing would have provided some relief to journalists in that PAIA contains a public interest override, but it stopped well short of creating a public interest defence.
The media, rights lawyers and the opposition have clamoured for such a defence as it would allow journalists who publish classified information to argue they did so in the public interest.
African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart said the major issue to be debated in coming weeks or months remained the public interest defence.
"That is going to be the important angle."
The ANC has repeatedly said it would not relent on the issue, and the draft changes simply contain a clause requiring the authorities to take into account "the public benefit to be derived from the disclosure of the information".
An earlier version of the bill provoked a public outcry last year, with commentators calling it a return to apartheid-era suppression of information in a bid to prevent criticism of the ruling party.
The ANC subsequently removed provisions that would have allowed the government to use the nebulous notion of "national interest" as a rationale for keeping information under wraps.
That version would also have enabled the minister of state security to classify information to prevent embarrassment to an organ of state. The changes tabled on Tuesday expressly prohibits this.
But despite considerable backtracking by the ANC, heated philosophical debates about state secrecy and the scope of the bill are still expected, with the opposition arguing for as little classification as possible, and the ANC warning of the dangers of failing to file away information that could destabilise the state.
Burgess on Tuesday stressed the role of the state in providing security to its citizens as an important rationale behind the legislation.
"It is not an easy job for the government to protect its people."
He accused the media of stirring fears that powers to classify information would be abused by corrupt officials, and said the bill could not be drafted as if nobody in the state service could be trusted.