MP clears up confusion over info bill

2011-11-14 21:33

Cape Town - The protection of information bill will finally be put to the vote in the National Assembly next Wednesday after a further delay of one week, ANC MP Luwellyn Landers has confirmed on Monday.

Amid widespread confusion about the process, Landers said the hour-long debate on the state secrecy legislation would proceed as scheduled this Wednesday.

But following this, the ad hoc committee that drafted the bill will then be reconvened to consider a technical issue and a set of new proposals, both raised by Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini.

"Apparently he demanded that legally the ad hoc committee must approve minutes," Landers said.

"We thought that since there is already talk of a Constitutional Court challenge, it is better to err on the side of safety."

The committee is expected to meet on Thursday, and further sessions could be scheduled depending on how much time is needed to consider Oriani-Ambrosini's proposed amendments, which number more than 100.

Oriani-Ambrosini said on Monday the ANC's decision to procede with the debate before the committee sits was not correct in terms of parliamentary rules.

"If they played by the rules, there should be no debate," he said.

His proposals and recent comments by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe notwithstanding, the bill is expected to be put to the vote next week in the same form in which it was approved by the committee in early September.

Motlanthe last week told reporters that there could perhaps be a "meeting point" between the media and the ruling party on the contentious issue of a public interest defence.

Noting firm threats of a constitutional challenge, he also promised that the ANC would not use its majority muscle to "ram" contestable legislation through Parliament.

But well-placed sources in the ruling party have since explained that Motlanthe was not mooting the inclusion of a conventional public interest defence in the bill.

Such a provision would allow those prosecuted for publishing classified information - a crime punishable with up to 25 years in prison - to argue that they had done so for the greater good.

Instead, he was referring to the possibility of approaching a court with classified information, and arguing that it was in the public interest to allow publication.

This option already exists in the current version of the bill.

The ANC suggests however that the bill could still undergo changes when it comes before the National Council of Provinces next year.

This would add another turn to the already troubled passage of the legislation which has arguably garnered more opposition than any post-apartheid law.

Critics, including Cosatu, say it places too much power in the hands of the security agencies, sacrifices transparency and media freedom for excessive state secrecy and fails to protect whistle-blowers.

The bill was originally set down for debate in late September but withdrawn from the parliamentary programme by the ANC to allow for further consultation.

The Democratic Alliance said last week the ruling party's attempts at consultation turned out to be a farce, and had only reached five provinces.

But the office of the ANC chief whip said the party could still hold public meetings on the bill once it had been sent to the NCOP.