Room for change in secrecy bill

2011-11-26 18:15

Opponents of the Protection of State Information Bill in its current form are hopeful that they will be able to make changes as a new committee is appointed by Parliament to consider the bill.

This came after the National Assembly voted in favour of the bill, which critics feel should have a public interest defence to protect whistle-blowers and journalists who want to publish details of government corruption.

More public hearings on the bill are set to be held by the ad hoc committee established on Thursday by Parliament’s higher house, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).

Bills have to be voted on by the NCOP before they are sent to President Jacob Zuma to be signed into law.

All opposition parties were united in opposing the bill, while almost all ANC MPs present voted in favour.

Three ANC MPs – Ben Turok, Gloria Bornam and Salam Abrams – either abstained or absented themselves from the vote and the ANC is considering whether to discipline them.
But some ANC MPs have admitted that even some of their colleagues who voted for the bill felt uneasy about it and the “clumsy” way its passing has been handled.

“It got off to a bad start, especially because it coincided with talk about a media appeals tribunal,” said an ANC MP, who wanted to remain anonymous.

Already the NCOP has agreed to push back by a month its initial March 8 deadline for the committee to conclude its consultations.

DA MP Alf Lees, one of two DA representatives on the committee, said this was good news because it showed the NCOP understood that more time would be needed if public consultations were to be done properly.

But he said the ANC, which could nominate 10 out of its more than 30 members of NCOP to sit on the committee, still had a majority over the opposition parties, which would be allowed five representatives.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe this week in the National Assembly promised that more talks would be held on the bill.?

It was earlier reported that Motlanthe supported the insertion of a public interest defence in the bill, but his spokesperson Thabo Masebe said he was misunderstood and had merely referred to further consultations.

Labour federation Cosatu believed the bill was too broad and threatened to take it to the Constitutional Court if it wasn’t tightened up.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi yesterday said he was still waiting to hear from the ANC and SACP about a date for an urgent meeting on the bill.

The SACP was initially unhappy with the bill, but general secretary Blade Nzimande on Friday told teachers’ union Sadtu that it was now satisfied that the bill in its current form would not undermine the fight against corruption.

The SA National Editors Forum has welcomed the establishment of the NCOP ad hoc committee and said it would make further submissions.

“The NCOP now has an opportunity fully to consider the ways in which the bill fails our democracy, and to remedy them,” it said in a statement.

The National Press Club has also called on people to wear black again on Tuesday to keep last Tuesday’s “Black Tuesday” campaign against the bill going.

DA MP Dene Smuts, who was a member of the National Assembly ad hoc committee considering the bill, cautioned against campaigns that could “harden” attitudes.

Smuts said the campaign against the bill helped to unite all opposition MPs.

She said the bill was currently “about 75% of what we wanted”, and she believed the other changes could be done before it was passed in the NCOP.

» Meanwhile, ANC parliamentary caucus spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said the party had received apologies from MPs who did not attend Tuesday’s vote, ranging from ill-health, international trips and ministerial commitments, and that each reason would be individually examined to determine its legitimacy.

ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga has demanded proof from ANC MPs for why they were absent from the House.

ANC stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was admitted to hospital last week while Vytjie Mentor, who sat on the National Assembly ad hoc committee which considered the bill, was recovering from an operation.

Several ministers had official appointments, and others, like Correctional Services Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula who is in the DRC, were abroad. – additional reporting Loyiso Sidimba

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