Alarm at ‘draconian’ secrets bill

2010-07-01 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Interest groups are demanding that a “draconian” draft bill providing for the protection of sensitive state information should be withdrawn from parliament because it is unconstitutional and will damage democracy if it is promulgated.

In submissions to the legislature that were tabled yesterday, non-governmental organisations and media groups had almost nothing but scathing criticism about the proposed Protection of Information Act, saying it poses a substantial threat to media freedom.

“I truly hope that the department will read the writing on the wall and withdraw this proposed law,” said Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier, a member of the parliamentary ad hoc committee that is considering the draft bill.

In terms of the legislation, the state will be able to classify as “confidential”, “secret” or “top secret” any information that it considers to be in the “national interest” or relates to “national security”. Anyone disclosing or disseminating such information could face heavy penalties.

This could affect journalists in particular, as they often have to rely on confidential information or documentation, or whistle-blowers who expose wrongdoing.

The Institute for a Democratic South Africa, the Institute of Security Studies, the Freedom of Expression Institute, Cosatu, the South African Editors’ Forum and the Centre for Constitutional Rights, among other organisations, have criticised the bill as being irreconcilable with democratic values.

Criticism centres largely on the low threshold by which information is classified, which could result in practically anything being placed under wraps that may be considered to harm the national interest or threaten national security.

The critics say that “interest” and “security” are vague, broad concepts that can be easily abused.

Law firm Webber Wentzel, on behalf of Print Media SA (of which all the newspaper groups in the country are members), says the legislation places “draconian, oppressive and unjustifiable restrictions” on media freedom.

The law writers paid almost no attention to objections raised by stakeholders when an earlier version of the act was tabled in 2008.

In fact, they are diametrically opposed to those objections.

It is argued that the bill is unconstitutional because “it violates the values of openness, accountability and transparency” that underpin the Constitution, as well as the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and access to information.

The bill makes no provision for public interest, and journalists who reveal sensitive information can have heavy prison sentences imposed on them.

If a local newspaper publishes documents comparable to the “Pentagon Papers” (classified American documents showing how that country’s presidents lied about Vietnam) the journalist responsible for the story could be sentenced to up to 25 years in jail.

The act’s “excessively wide net” will restrict journalism and the unnecessary classification of documents will lead to “excessive secrecy” and the censorship of political opinion, the law firm says.

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