Let’s play the ball, not the person

2012-01-28 11:49

The widespread interest and debate sparked by the Protection of State Information Bill has been encouraging, mostly because it has highlighted the character of our young democracy.
But the gaps in the way the media have interpreted and reported on this important piece of legislation is interesting. Judging from the editorials, articles and blogs, a lot still needs to be done to ensure fair and objective reporting on this bill.

On Tuesday we took the National Council of Provinces Ad Hoc Committee on the Protection of State Information Bill through a summarised, chapter-by-chapter account of what this bill seeks to achieve.

Incidentally, one of the members of the press corps protested on Twitter that “acting director-general Dennis Dlomo seems determined to read the whole bill with individual clauses”.

It is important to understand that the bill seeks to ensure that apartheid laws in our statute books pertaining to national security are eliminated. It would repeal the Protection of Information Act of 1982, which is inconsistent with our democratic Constitution.

The bill also introduces a coherent, consistent and legally sound process of classification, reclassification and declassification of sensitive state information. It creates an oversight and review system – through the Classification Review Panel – to ensure the integrity of the classification process and strengthens the intelligence oversight system of the republic.

More importantly, the bill seeks to address another national problem, namely, protecting valuable information – identity documents, birth certificates, driver’s licences, passports and company ownership information kept by the state – against alteration, loss and destruction.

This section of the bill has received little mention in the debate, yet it touches the ordinary lives of every South African. It would help government deal harshly with corrupt officials who are hellbent on working with crime syndicates to undermine our national security. The bill seeks to uphold the values of the Constitution and align processes in the Promotion of Access to Information Act, Protected Disclosures Act and other laws protecting whistle-blowers.

As we begin the National Council of Provinces process, we appeal to fellow South Africans not to prejudge the process. We encourage them to engage with it and the opportunities that the Ad Hoc Committee would avail to table concerns and make recommendations to improve the current version of the bill. Let’s allow the Ad Hoc Committee to consider input without undue pressure.

In the National Assembly, we witnessed a feature that undermined due process as some prejudged discussions while others deliberately misled the public with their comments and reporting. Of great concern was observing Ad Hoc Committee members being targeted and called all sorts of names by protesters.

Let us play the ball and not the person. The media need to report fairly and objectively on the Ad Hoc Committee – not just on the issues that seem to coincide with their views. This is not a matter of choice but a responsibility to inform the public.

Public hearings begin on Tuesday. We call on members of the public to go out, participate and make their voices heard.

» Cwele is State Security minister

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