State sticks to information bill but makes some changes

2010-09-17 14:24

The government will narrow the scope of the Protection of Information Bill by scrapping the notion of classification in the national interest, but largely preserve the rest of the proposed act, State Intelligence Minister Siyabonga Cwele said today.

He argued that it was an essential tool to protect South Africa against an onslaught of espionage, both political and commercial.

The state accepted criticism that the term “national interest” was so wide it could mean virtually anything, and it would therefore be removed from the legislation, Cwele told members of Parliament’s ad hoc portfolio committee on the bill.

Likewise, the clause in the bill referring to the classification of “commercial information” would be removed, and a better formulation found to stop information theft that has seen South African products lose market share abroad.

“Economic espionage is a reality, but we agree that the way it is structured in the bill at this stage may be too broad and our approach is to just remove it and find a clearer and narrow approach of defining what needs to be protected.”

However, Cwele rejected calls to introduce the public interest defence into the bill – which would allow whistle blowers and journalists to argue they had made public classified information for the greater good.

He said citizens were free to use this as an argument to apply to be given access to state secrets, but not as a defence once the information had been leaked.

“This means that the state must permit anyone to leak or solicit classified information for public disclosure and then be allowed to prove that the leak was done so as to advance public interest.”

The state insisted on the need for prison sentences of up to 15 years for publishing secret material, as it would serve as a “deterrent to unauthorised disclosure”, he said.

It would, however, ask lawmakers to introduce similarly harsh sentences for state officials who abused the classification system.

Cwele rejected repeated criticism that the penalties, along with other aspects of the bill, constituted a grave attack on media freedom and would mark a return to apartheid-era repression.

The African National Congress would never betray the democratic values for which it fought, he said.

He depicted post-apartheid South Africa as a country riddled with spies and information peddlers that sought to destabilise democracy, undermine food, water and energy security and steal valuable commercial information.

“Some of their collection targets include profiles of senior government leaders, such as the president, the deputy president, ministers and deputy ministers and the leadership of the ruling and opposition parties.”

Their aim was to “unduly influence the evolution of politics and future plans of South Africa”, he added.

The Democratic Alliance’s Dene Smuts said Cwele’s stance amounted to a bid to legitimise the long-standing abuse of state intelligence to police political activity. It also reeked of the paranoia that took hold under former President Thabo Mbeki.

She said South Africa had seen “secrecy spread like an oil slick” because the National Intelligence Agency was allowed to spy in areas that should be beyond their brief in any healthy democracy.

“I have found some of your arguments and examples this morning close to grotesque, with respect, because I see that you are in the grip of political paranoia which influenced intelligence after the Cabinet and the president, in 2003, instructed that espionage would now take place in respect of politics and political formations and parties and also on economical activities.”

Spying on economical activity was a recipe for corruption, she warned.

Cwele countered: “There is no political paranoia. We are talking about political reality.”

He insisted that baseless rumours of political plots had already done severe damage, and cited as an example the Scorpions’ discredited Browse Mole report that told of plans by President Jacob Zuma to overthrow his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.

“These peddled claims have caused untold disruptions and divisions within the government system, ruling party and its allies and have negatively affected the project of democratisation of the country.”

Smuts said the bill should deal with no more than “real security issues”.

Cwele said the bill was very much a work in progress, and he would return to the committee to provide further input. Initially, the legislation was set to be finalised by September.

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