Info bill concessions ‘misleading’: noted authors

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Concessions made in the Protection of Information Bill are misleading and do nothing to curb its real purpose, say acclaimed South African authors Nadine Gordimer and Andre Brink.

“The ‘concessions’ proposed to the… Bill are to be understood for what they are — token moves to silence the rejection of the Bill by media organisations, labour unions, writers and artists, and all in civil society in our country who are aware that the right of freedom of expression in a democracy is absolute,” they said in a statement on Friday.
“We accept that it is necessary to protect highly sensitive state information.” State security for defence and for the military was a given, as in all democracies, the South African Press Association (SAPA) quoted the duo as saying. “But this Bill went far and expressly beyond that necessity.” The Bill, if passed into law, would inhibit freedom of expression and put an end to the basic right that had come with the end of apartheid through the protection of human rights in the constitution, they said.

The proposed concessions included limiting the classification primarily to security services. This meant that only state security services would have the authority to classify information in their possession, subject to oversight only by the particular organisation under which they fell. “Therefore this allows any member of the security services to classify exponentially, increasing the quantity of information that can be suppressed.”

During the period of oversight — anything from months to years — that information would be withheld from the public. The offence of disclosing it would bring a minimum sentence of five years in prison. An individual could be convicted for the disclosure even of information that in itself was not classified, but simply because that information pertained to an organisation such as the National Intelligence Agency or the SA Secret Service.

There was no public interest defence to protect whistleblowers, members of the media, civil society, even when classified information revealed, for example, evidence of corruption, surely a social service. “Softening the bill with ameliorating clauses here and there is deliberately misleading from its purpose to stifle our right of freedom of expression, hard-won from the apartheid era. “If our freedom is to survive, this bill must be rejected totally, outright, by the people of South Africa.
“We believe that we owe it to our constitution, to the legacy of the Freedom Charter, and to our shared future as a democracy,” Gordimer and Brink said.