Worried UN rings the warning bell over secrecy bill

2012-06-16 19:34

At least 10 nations express concern that the law is a threat to press freedom

South Africa has been asked to annul the Protection of State Information Bill, also known as the Secrecy Bill, by several nations in the United Nations.

At the United Nations ­Human Rights Commission meeting last month in Geneva, Switzerland, South Africa’s human rights record was scrutinised.

Nations are called to report to the commission on their human rights situation.

After the report from South Africa, presented by Deputy Justice Minister Andries Nel, the Swedish ambassador raised alarm over the information bill’s effect on press freedom.

Sweden has always fiercely opposed the bill.

Germany also asked for the bill to be abrogated.

The US proposed that the South African government engage civil society, including the media, “to seek common ground” on the bill.

Contained in the report of the meeting, which is in City Press’s possession, at least 10 nations stated their concern and recommended the Secrecy Bill be reworked or scrapped: Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, Portugal, Sweden and the US.

The effect that the Secrecy Bill will have on press freedom is their main fear, given the ANC’s prior threat of a media appeals tribunal.

A Swedish government official told City Press: “If you have a number of countries raising the same issue about a specific law, it should be of concern for the country involved.”

The official said the SecrecyBill is under discussion among European ambassadors based in South Africa.

“No one knows about the amendments and what exactly they are. We hear a protection clause for
whistle-blowers and journalists has been added, but then the state security department says differently.”

Labour federation Cosatu has also been an outspoken critic of the bill.

ANC members of Parliament recommended to the committee that the bill should exempt those who disclose classified information that reveals criminal activity.

This follows extensive public hearings conducted by the National Council of Provinces.

The state security ministry, in its presentation to the committee, said the bill provides checks and balances to ensure it is not abused by authorities to classify such information.

It added there were lawful means to access information if needed.

The department said reports on the UN meeting were an “ongoing and deliberate attempt by some sections of the media to mislead the public on the facts of deliberation on the bill”.

State security spokesperson Brian Dube told City Press: “The issue of the bill was raised as part of other issues of clarity, to which the meeting made certain recommendation including to ensure the info bill complies with international human rights so as to ensure freedom of the media and to engage with civil society and activists.”

“We are on record saying that the info bill is anchored in a human rights perspective.”

ANC parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo confirmed that Parliament would discuss the SecrecyBill again in July as its first order of business.

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