The African National Congress (ANC) yesterday bowed to pressure on the Protection of State Information Bill, proposing changes in response to criticism of the bill over the past two years, the SA Press Association reports.
These include a compromise on a public interest defence as a way of protecting journalists and whistle-blowers who risk prison to expose state wrongdoing. ANC members of the National Council of Provinces’ ad hoc committee processing the “secrecy bill” proposed that section 43, which criminalises revealing classified information, make an explicit exception for cases where “such disclosure reveals criminal activity”. Under the proposal, this section would also enable those charged with disclosure to argue in their defence that the information was wrongly classified to begin with.
The ANC also moved to amend section 49, which has been criticised for criminalising the disclosure of information relating to any state security matter. It had been seen as tantamount to drawing a veil over the activities of intelligence agents. The proposed change would make it a crime only to reveal classified state information relating to security matters.
The two sections were among those singled out for criticism by Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in a submission to Parliament in late March.
Other key changes were to strike the remaining provisions for minimum sentences from the bill and to remove the words “ought reasonably to have known” in relation to offences throughout the bill.
This would have a significant effect on the burden of proof on the state in court cases brought under the act. The amendment addresses a criticism raised by veteran human rights lawyer George Bizos that lawmakers had wrongly reversed the burden in crimes like espionage, and that people risked “going to jail for 25 years for being stupid”.
Yesterday’s concessions from the ANC came hours after State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele told reporters he would welcome any initiatives that would help the bill to pass constitutional muster.
DA MP Alf Lees commented: “It does not go far enough but it really is a welcome alternative.” Cosatu’s Patrick Craven said the ANC’s proposals “sound encouraging”.The Right 2 Know Campaign said some “positive half-steps were made today”.