Protection of Information Bill could be amended further


The controversial Protection of Information Bill could be amended again after a parliamentary committee decided that political parties should draw up documents outlining what they would like in the bill and what they want removed from it.

The Protection of Information Bill is widely viewed as an attempt to increase state secrecy and has been criticised for not including a public interest defence to allow the publication of classified information that is in the public interest, Business Day reports.

The bill aims to set up a regimen for the classification of state information. But clauses providing for lengthy jail terms for anyone in possession of, or who publishes classified information, have sparked widespread opposition to the bill.

An ad hoc parliamentary committee, which met for the first time on January 18, was set up to consider the draft law. After a presentation by the Department of State Security on international best practice in crafting laws to protect state information, the committee decided that the way forward is for political parties to draft documents clearly stating their positions, Business Day reports.

Opposition parties want a public interest defence added to the bill, but the African National Congress is against such a measure as it would make the legislation pointless, according to State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele.

The position documents will be distributed among the parties and will be discussed at the committee’s meeting on Friday. Tensions are mounting, as the committee’s deadline to approve the bill is in June.

In January, 60 pages of suggested changes to the bill were presented to parliament. The changes made by the state law advisor leave open the question of how to reconcile the Bill with the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). The governing African National Congress (ANC) has repeatedly said it will not relent on the issue, and the draft changes simply contain a clause requiring the authorities to take into account “the public benefit to be derived from the disclosure of the information”.

An earlier version of the bill provoked a public outcry last year, with commentators calling it a “return to apartheid-era suppression of information in a bid to prevent criticism of the ruling party.”

The ANC subsequently removed provisions that would have allowed the government to use the nebulous notion of “national interest” as a rationale for keeping information under wraps. That version would also have enabled the minister of state security to classify information to prevent embarrassment to an organ of state. The changes tabled in January expressly prohibits this.