State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele says the Protection of State Information Bill or “secrecy Bill” is aimed at stamping out an increasing incidence in espionage cases as well as the business of peddling state information.
Cwele was briefing the National Council of Provinces’ ad hoc committee, which is deliberating the Bill.
“If I am a foreign spy — any legislation which makes my work harder won’t be nice for me,” Cwele added. Information peddling was a “growing cancer” and laws did not exist to fight it, he said. South Africa had to learn from other countries when it came to protecting state information, the SA Press Association quoted him as saying. “This is a growing cancer and we don’t have the legal [remedy] to deal with it,” he said.
He said it sought to protect valuable state information, promote the handling of sensitive information in the hands of the courts and fight corruption, the state BuaNews agency reports. Cwele said the Bill would curb increasing “company hijacking”, whereby criminals falsified information in the company registry and end up owning shares and becoming company directors.
Cwele highlighted that the leaking of state information as well as hiding corruption by officials was “a bad thing”. “Corruption eats from the heart of the poor. No official should hide corruption through classification (of information).” He said information peddling was “a growing cancer and we don’t have a legal statute to deal with it”.
He was accompanied by the department’s acting Director General Dennis Dlomo. Dlomo took the house through some of the important tenets of the Bill. He said it provided for conditions on which state information may not be classified. Such information, he said, pertained to corruption, maladministration, incompetence and inefficiency in government. He said that an independent Classification Panel would be constituted to deal with the classification, reclassification and declassification of information. The panel would have the power to set aside wrongful classifications, he said.
Cwele said that if a request is made for information, which in turn happened to be classified, the request must be referred to the concerned minister in the department for a review of its classification status. That minister would have to declassify the information if, among others, it related to “imminent and serious public safety or environmental risk”. Such information should be given out within 14 days after the request was made.
Business Day, meanwhile, reports opposition and civil society groups’ hopes for further changes to the Bill were dashed with Cwele again insisting he was convinced that a public interest defence should not be considered for the draft law. The paper said hopes had been high that the remaining points of difference in the Bill, such as the absence of a public interest defence and the criminalisation of possession of classified information, could be resolved during the NCOP deliberations. The Bill has already been approved by the National Assembly, with all parties other than the African National Congress opposed to it.
On the public interest override, Cwele said “we remained concerned that we should not move in that direction”. He insists such a defence exists in no other jurisdiction in the world.
Opposition Democratic Alliance party NCOP MP Alf Lees also took the minister to task over his statement to the National Assembly last year that local opponents of the Bill were proxies of foreign agents and asked whether he was referring to the Right2Know campaign that has campaigned against the Bill. Cwele then denied that he had ever made such a statement and offered to make a copy of Hansard available to establish this.