The ruling African National Congress will not compromise on its proposal to make the leaking, possession or publication of classified government information a prison offence even when there is a compelling public interest, a senior party MP says.
Llewellyn Landers, the ANC’s chief negotiator on the ad hoc committee taking the Protection of Information Bill through Parliament, told the Sunday Times on Friday that his delegation would allow the introduction of the public interest as a reason to apply for the formal declassification of a state secret. But he said the ANC would not allow a public interest argument to be used as a defence in a prosecution for violation of the provisions of the proposed law.
The proposal could see reporters who accept and use leaked government secrets to expose corruption or maladministration going to prison for up to 25 years. Landers said the ANC team had a broad mandate to negotiate, but referred key decisions to the party’s national leadership.
Provision for non-custodial penalties and a public interest defence, are the major outstanding demands of opposition MPs, civil society and media houses, the Sunday paper reported yesterday. The ANC delegation has already voted to dismiss opposition efforts to narrow the scope of the bill and to reduce the number of agencies that can impose secrecy.
The opposition Democratic Alliance party’s Dene Smuts was repeatedly over-ruled even when she pointed out logical inconsistencies and drafting errors, the paper added. She said there were already at least two strong grounds for an appeal to the Constitutional Court if the Bill is passed, but her first step would be a formal appeal to President Jacob Zuma not to sign it into law.
The Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mario Ambrosini said he would appeal to opposition colleagues to mount a “filibuster” and prevent passage of the bill. “This bill is placing the first nail in what could become the coffin of this Republic … it seems clear that we have reached the end of the road as far as negotiation is concerned,” he said.
At a news conference after a week of often acrimonious debate about the so-called secrecy bill, Ambrosini on Friday warned that the Bill could fundamentally undermine South Africa’s democracy. He said he was appealing to other opposition parties through the media to look for ways to use parliamentary rules to delay passage of the proposal until the ANC comes to its senses.
The Bill has been widely criticised. “Everyone who appeared before us, everyone who wrote to us said they want a public interest defence… this bill does not represent the will of the people,” Ambrosini said. Opposition parties agree there is a need for rules to cover the classification of certain state information as secret, but they argue that the power is too widely given and the provisions are too sweeping.
Ambrosini said that while South Africa did not have the specific parliamentary rules that allowed US congress members to delay legislation by making endless speeches – a process known as a filibuster – he believed there were provisions that could be exploited by opposition parties. “The threat is on the table,” he said.
Meanwhile, freedom of information campaigners are also saying they will ratchet up a campaign to prevent the ruling party from ramming the current version of the Bill through Parliament. The Right2Know campaign said a meeting on Tuesday where ANC MPs used their majority to approve contentious clauses of the bill by vote, showed that the ruling party was reneging on concessions made in recent months and determined to drive a “draconian bill” through Parliament. “The ANC position on the secrecy Bill has hardened. As a result, its MPs have reneged on a number of concessions made in recent months to reduce the Bill’s powers,” the group said in a statement. “The Right2Know campaign is calling for a new period of action to stop the secrecy Bill. We call on all those who are seriously concerned by this turn of events to make their collective voices heard now.”
It said the ANC must abandon efforts to pass the bill in its current form and go back to the drawing board to produce a piece of legislation that is in line with the Constitution.