Cwele to brief MPs on Information Bill

2010-08-10 13:33

Cape Town - State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele will come to Parliament on Friday to address MPs on the Protection of Information Bill, which has set the stage for a showdown between government and the media.

Cecil Burgess, the chairperson of the ad hoc committee handling the controversial bill, said Cwele had intended to do so on Tuesday but needed time to study developments around the bill, having been away on a state visit to Russia.

The draft law has been decried as unconstitutional and an attempt to return to apartheid-era repression because of the wide discretion it gives the minister and officials to classify information and the harsh penalties it imposes on the press for publishing such information.

Fatal flaw

One of the main criticisms has been that it bars journalists from arguing that they acted in the public interest by publishing classified information.

In deliberations on the bill on Tuesday, opposition MPs termed it a fatal flaw and dismissed an argument by chief state law advisor Enver Daniels that the public interest defence would not make the bill more compatible with constitutional law.

"This is frankly a laughable statement," Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts told the committee.

She recalled that former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils was in favour of including the public defence interest in the bill when an earlier version was before Parliament.

It lapsed, and the new version drafted by the new administration has been slammed by media editors for throwing to the wind democratic safeguards contained in the previous incarnation.

Smuts reiterated that parts of the new legislation were "clearly unconstitutional" but said the process could be salvaged, though it might take a long time and become "tumultuous".

Independent legal opinion

Opposition MPs again called for the committee to get an independent legal opinion on whether the legislation would withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Burgess said he was open to doing so, and would ask the Speaker and secretary of Parliament whether the committee could have the funds to pay for an outside opinion.

The ANC committee chairperson who in previous sessions staunchly defended the bill and gave short shrift to opposition interjections, on Tuesday allowed that the draft act had "good qualities and bad qualities".

He also indicated that the deadline of September for the committee to finalise the bill may be extended.

"We are at a very early stage and we cannot say what this bill is going to look like. If we are not finished we will extend it again."

Smuts interjected: "Believe me, it will be."

The bill, along with the ANC policy proposal for the media to be policed by a tribunal that reports to Parliament, has met with resistance in the ranks of the media and civil society, who see it as an attempt to silence criticism of the government.

Perceptions 'unfounded'

Government spokesperson Themba Maseko last week said perceptions that the state was seeking to muzzle the press were unfounded.

He announced that President Jacob Zuma wanted to meet senior editors soon to discuss the legislation and the outcry, but said he could give no commitment that government remained open to persuasion on the bill.

Cwele's submission on Friday will be closely watched, in part because of the powers it gives him to decide whether it is in the national interest to keep information under wraps.

The concept of national interest has been described as "nebulous" by lawyers in public submissions to the committee, and Smuts termed it "pure poetry".

She said the notion should be removed from the bill, and instead information should only be classified if there was a demonstrable risk that it could jeopardise national security.

Daniels has conceded that the bill was vague in several areas and that its drafters had failed to find a clear definition for national interest.

He said it was up to the minister to draft regulations that would remove confusion and spell out a policy position on how the bill would be implemented.