MPs fail to agree on scope of state secrecy

2010-11-05 14:55

MPs redrafting the Protection of Information Bill could find no agreement on the vexed question of what gets classified, and by whom.

Members of the ANC argued today that the bill be changed so that the power to classify did not extend to people in government posts lower than the directors-general of departments and their immediate underlings.

“Some general manager of Algoa Bus Company sitting somewhere in Eastern Cape should not be classifying information,” ANC MP Llewellyn Landers said to illustrate the point.

But the DA insists that the law should apply only to departments that deal with intelligence. It should also regulate how it restricts access to information that could affect national security.

DA MP Dene Smuts said: “Surely it’s not about the level, it’s about the stuff.”

She said the scope of the bill must be narrowed to apply to the work of South Africa’s “intelligence agencies and perhaps foreign affairs”.

The military, the police and even the revenue services had their own laws governing the classification of information.

“It is not the job of the intelligence community to deal with all life on earth,” Smuts said after the IFP challenged the proposed limitation of the scope of the bill.

IFP MP Mario Oriani Ambrosini said a serious threat might arise from the disclosure of personal information in other fields, and therefore other officials too must be given the right to classify.

“This might happen once in a blue moon ... but if and when and where and maybe, why should it not apply?” he asked.

The chairperson of the ad hoc committee handling the bill, Cecil Burgess, intervened, asking Smuts: “Are you not prepared to concede that there are departments that you don’t want to fall within the ambit of the bill that might have information that needs to be classified?”

She said the answer was “no”.

Landers tried to trump the DA by asking whether there was “nothing, absolutely nothing, falling within the purview of the Western Cape government that requires protection or classification?”

Concerns have repeatedly been expressed in recent months that guidelines introduced in 1996 and still in place – the Minimum Information Security Standards (Miss) – allowed spies a free hand to regulate the flow of almost any form of information.

Smuts said it created a situation where “anything and everything can be classified in South Africa” and gave the National Intelligence Agency vast control over information held by all organs of state.

“The result was over-classification. It resulted in government departments straining under the burden of massive amounts of classified documentation.

The (Ronnie) Kasrils ministry (of intelligence) told us that there exists a default position of secrecy inconsistent with the Constitution,” she said.

“This bill actually perpetuates the existing system, perhaps because the ministry from which it emanates is steeped in that kind of thinking.

“The bill still applies to all institutions just as the Miss does, the intelligence community seems to exercise control over all documentation.”

MPs therefore had to rethink “what should be classified, who should classify it, for how long”.

On Monday, Frank Chikane, who served as director general of information in the Thabo Mbeki presidency, raised further alarm that intelligence operatives had freely shared information with unauthorised officials, as long as they were in the ruling party.

ANC MP Vytjie Mentor dismissed his claims as “nonsense”.

The committee this week agreed to remove the vague notion of national interest from the bill, as well as clauses providing for the classification of commercial information.

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