What the info bill will mean for reporting

2011-11-22 08:00
Cape Town - Anything from a fine to 25 years in prison will be the fate awaiting anyone who possesses or discloses classified state information.

Journalists or whistleblowers will no longer be able to argue in court that they disclosed secret state information because it was in the public interest, because the controversial protection of state information bill excludes a public interest defence.

In terms of the bill it will, therefore, be illegal to make secret state information public, even if it exposes serious corruption or crime.

Because of these heavy penalties and the exclusion of a public interest defence, various civil rights organisations, interest groups, opposition parties and Cosatu have threatened to fight the proposed act in the Constitutional Court.

Declassifying information

In its present form, the bill stipulates that the only way in which a newspaper could obtain and publish classified state information legally, is to request the relevant governmental head first to declassify the information. In the case of a state department, this would be the director-general, in a municipality it will be the municipal manager, in a public enterprise the CEO, and in the case of a national key point the owner.

Should the application be refused, the newspaper could lodge an appeal with the relevant minister whose department classified the information. If the appeal failed, a court application could be brought to obtain the information legally.

The bill does make it possible to go directly to court if the classified state information will expose a “serious crime”, a public security threat, or environmental risk.

ANC MP Cecil Burgess, chairperson of the ad hoc committee dealing with the bill, says the scope of the bill has been considerably curtailed because it authorises only the department of state security, the police and the defence force to classify information. But trade union Cosatu believes the power to classify is still “excessive” as any other state department or enterprise may obtain permission from the state security minister to keep information secret.

Whistleblowers will be criminals

The bill also criminalises the possession of secret state information and requires such information to be immediately handed over to the police or the department of state security. A newspaper with any secret information would first need to hand it to the government and would be able to publish it only if the information has been declassified.

Anyone who assists, encourages, orders or advises anyone else to obtain classified state information will also be prosecuted.

Cosatu and municipal trade union Samwu say the bill will make criminals of whistleblowers in government departments.

Should the bill become law, reams of municipal documents can be classified as “secret” and officials’ abuse of power can be covered up.

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