Info Bill extension welcomed, concerns remain


Parliament has extended the life of the ad hoc committee on the Protection of Information Bill. The committee now has until September 23 to complete its deliberations on the Bill, which has been widely criticised by opposition MPs, civil society and academics.

While the additional time granted to MPs has been welcomed, the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) said yesterday it is still concerned over a number of aspects of the Bill and their potential effects on the country’s democracy, the Mail & Guardian newspaper reports today. The so-called “secrecy Bill” is intended to create a new framework for the classification of state information.

SANEF noted that in its current form, the Bill remains flawed. Its broad application over all organs of state is a “recipe for extensive and unnecessary classification”, and is aggravated by the lack of an independent review body to hear appeals to review decisions to classify information.

The severe penalties for disclosing classified information are also problematic, the forum said. “The prescribed minimum penalties for the unlawful disclosure of classified information are unacceptably harsh — a minimum three-year jail term in many cases for even the most trivial infraction — and out of proportion to the non-custodial penalties applied to officials who abuse their power and classify information to cover up criminal or embarrassing conduct,” it said.

The exclusion of any protection for whistle-blowers or the provision for a public-interest defence remain a failure, it said. “With no overriding legislation to protect whistle-blowers, we believe it is crucial that a provision for the disclosure of secrets in the public interest must be included in the Bill to make it possible for well-intentioned people throughout the publication chain to disclose classified information that exposes serious criminal behaviour or maladministration in government.”

The Bill also violates constitutionally protected rights, SANEF said, such as “freedom of the press and other media [and] freedom to receive or impart information or ideas”. This would make it impossible to uphold other rights in the Constitution, as it would be impossible to get information on how they were being implemented, the body argued.

ANC parliamentarians came under fire a few weeks ago for what was widely seen as an attempt to push the Bill through the legislative process when ANC members on the committee began voting clause-by-clause on the Bill. A coalition of civil society organisations, the Right2Know campaign, has called for the Bill to be scrapped entirely. This sentiment was echoed by late ANC stalwart and former Cabinet minister Kader Asmal in an open letter on the Bill, just weeks before his untimely passing on Wednesday. Asmal asked all South Africans to join him in rejecting the measure in its entirety.

In a statement, Right2Know said, “What remains to be seen is whether this extension will be coupled with a renewed spirit of openness, precision and proper deliberation on the demands made by civil society and communities across the country. There is an enormous amount of work to be done to bring the Bill in line with the principles of transparent and open democracy. It remains to be seen if our MPs have discovered the political will to do that work.”

But spokesman for the Ministry of State Security Brian Dube said in a statement that the decision to extend the life of the ad hoc committee “vindicates the minister’s position that there is no truth to allegations of the Bill being ‘bulldozed by the ANC in Parliament’, a claim made by those who are vehemently opposed to this Bill.” To call for the Bill to be scrapped shows a “total disregard to those who have contributed to this process”, he said. “It further seeks to undermine the work of Parliament, a democratic institution founded by our Constitution, and this cannot be allowed.”

A spokesman for the ANC caucus in Parliament, Moloto Mothapo, said in a statement that given the importance of the Bill, its conclusion by the proposed deadline was “of paramount importance”. “We are confident that there shall be no further extensions of datelines on this particular Bill,” he said, echoeing similar, previous statements.