Rushing info bill is worrying - Kasrils

2011-06-01 22:25

Cape Town - The rush to complete the protection of information bill by the parliamentary committee is worrying and will lead to huge problems and unnecessary tensions in the future, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils said on Wednesday.

"I hate to envisage the unforeseen consequences," he said in a letter sent to Sapa.

"It will certainly undermine public trust in the intelligence and security services at a time when confidence needs to be built.

"Even at this late stage, one would remind our legislators of the adage, 'more haste less speed'," he said.

The issues under discussion were complex and sensitive and it was necessary to ensure the proposed legislation did not undermine the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Discussions at parliamentary committee stage so far had not inspired public confidence that the issues had been sufficiently canvassed and considered.

"All agree that the outdated 1982 Act must be repealed and that a democratic state has the need to protect sensitive state secrets.

"To this end it is noteworthy that the bill recognises the harm of excessive secrecy," Kasrils said.

However, it was of concern that the proposed legislation was excessively broad and unfocused.

Certain of the penalties (other than that relating to espionage) were consequently extremely harsh, and the crucial need for a "public interest" defence clause was ignored.

The legislation should be primarily concerned with concrete acts which could cause genuine and real national security damage, such as attempts by civil servants to sell state secrets to foreigners or anyone else, the creation of false and deliberately misleading information by civil servants, the wilful identification of secret service employees, and photographs of classified government installations.

"Since freedom of expression is a dearly won principle of our liberation struggle it needs to be treated as sacrosanct outside the narrow national security sphere," he said.

This should allow the public to gain access on a "public interest" argument as a successful way of the media uncovering government incompetence where it might occur.

Tread warily

"In any democratic society worthy of the name there needs to be a clear understanding that government has no right to limit media coverage of stories that are embarrassing - or in the end shown to be only partly true.

"This is why a 'public interest' defence is so crucial to any such security legislation.

"It is for this reason that there needs to be flexibility to protect 'whistleblowers' where a public interest defence is applicable."

Such allowance in the legislation by no means protected those with a mischievous or sinister intent.

Its absence was anathema to freedom of information and of expression.

"It is imperative that this principle be fought for. It is not only a matter of media freedom.

"The requirements of the poor and needy - of those who are cheated by the powerful, the wealthy or the officials who squander the public purse or who fail in service delivery - can only be supported by a free press, by investigative journalism and research, by lively civic organisations."

A pertinent aim of this legislation from its original conception, had been the creation of a system to enable the declassification of masses of government documentation.

The system envisaged was so complicated and so hampered by lack of clarity that government would be creating a bureaucratic nightmare.

"This will act as a regression both from the public right to access information and to freedom of expression.

"Civil society is absolutely correct to ask government to think again and not rush in where angels should warily tread," Kasrils said.

- SAPA

Read more on:    ronnie kasrils  |  info bill  |  media  |  legislation
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