Government tweaks secrecy bill

2010-09-19 14:11

Government has compromised on two controversial issues in the much-criticised Protection of Information Bill currently before Parliament, but has remained committed to a third. It has, ­however, declared itself open to discussion on all perceived obstacles to a free flow of information.

State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele made good on Cabinet’s promise to deal with growing local and international condemnation of the bill when he briefed the high-profile parliamentary ad hoc committee on the bill and held a press conference about it later.

Government has agreed to two important changes. Firstly, it will drop the phrase “in the national ­interest”, which many argue can be used broadly to classify information as secret.

Government, the minister said, agreed with criticism that the definition of “national interest” was too broad.

Critics of the legislation have argued it creates a device that officials could use whimsically to bar access to information.

The second point government granted to its critics was on the protection of commercial information.

Government has now agreed to drop the current ­definition of commercial information and align it more tightly with the provisions of the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

Government has also agreed to move closer to the Canadian model, which defines very specifically which information needs to be protected and why.

An important point of criticism that government refuses to accede to is the request for a public interest override in the publication of information that has been classified as secret.

Such an override would allow for the courts to find that the publication of secret information was in order if it was in the public ­interest.

For instance, if information damaging to a member of the ­powerful elite was classified as secret to cover up wrongdoing but was uncovered and published by the media.

Cwele refused to be swayed by this argument, claiming that ­public interest could only be used as a reason to request access to classified information, not as a ­defence for having published it, because if it had been published wrongly the perceived damage to national security would already have been done.

At the media conference, he made written notes but remained non-committal to a question on what the point would be to use public interest as a motivation to declassify information in a request to the very people who classified it as secret in the first place.

Cwele assured MPs and journalists that government remained open to persuasion on the controversial aspects of the bill.

While opposition MPs welcomed government’s partial climb-down, they warned that it did not go nearly far enough.

DA MP and liberal stalwart Dene Smuts said the bill reeked of Mbeki-era paranoia and the politicisation of intelligence work.

African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart was adamant that the constitutional concerns raised by the Human Rights Commission were not at all met DA MP David Maynier commented that it boggled the mind that security agents took ridiculous theories seriously, such as a potential coup financed by deceased pop idol Michael Jackson.

It raised questions of ­capacity and lack of common sense, he quipped.

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