Information Bill debate resumes


The ruling African National Congress (ANC) says it cannot allow debate on the controversial Protection of Information Bill to continue forever, and will put contentious clauses to the vote if it fails to find agreement from the opposition.

“If there is no consensus we will vote on the matter and move on,” warned the ANC chairman of the ad hoc committee drafting the Bill, Cecil Burgess, as MPs resumed work after the municipal election recess. “There is no way we are going to have 100% consensus on everything.”

ANC MPs are in a position to easily outvote their opposition colleagues on a range of issues in the draft law – which has been dubbed the secrecy Bill by rights campaigners – that remain the subject of intense debate, the South African Press Association reports. These include whether all state organs would have the right to classify information and whether the Bill contains a special defence to allow journalists, who face prosecution and lengthy prison terms for publishing state secrets, to argue that they did so in the public interest.

On the last point, Burgess said the time had come for the opposition to accept that it would not persuade the ANC to include a so-called public interest defence as its research had clearly shown that this was not common practice around the world. “The ANC is digging its heels in on the basis that we cannot find support for that in international best practice,” he told MPs. Burgess added that the law already protected whistle-blowers who made public classified information to expose crime.

The ANC had held to the position that journalists did not need the same protection because those who had worrisome information should approach the police, not the media.

The Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mario Oriani-Ambrosini countered that the public interest defence was far more widespread around the world than the ANC would allow. He and other opposition MPs called for further debate on those and other issues, and argued that Burgess did not understand normal parliamentary process for finalising legislation.

Steve Swart, from the African Christian Democratic Party, said it was not acceptable to vote on individual clauses before considering the overall implication of proposed amendments for a bill as a whole. The DA’s Dene Smuts agreed, saying: “Voting comes right at the end. First we seek wisdom and talk to each other.” The call exasperated ANC MP Nkosinathi Fihla. “Are we going to be discussing this for the whole year,” he asked.

Deadlines for finalising the bill have come and gone since last year, when the wide powers the bill seeks to give the state to classify information sparked a national outcry. It was condemned by academics, activists, journalists and former Cabinet ministers as an attempt to muzzle the media and curtail criticism of the government.

In response, the government agreed to remove provisions allowing for information to be classified in the “national interest” or for commercial information to be kept secret. Critics believe the bill remains unconstitutional and if passed in its current form, it is likely to be challenged in court.

Minister of State Security Siybonga Cwele last November has pledged the media will be consulted when regulations detailing the introduction of the Protection of Information Bill are drafted. Cwele gave the commitment at a two-hour meeting with the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF). “The minister said editors would be consulted on the drafting of the regulations to ensure that the law is not used to infringe on the work of media specifically,” Cwele said in a statement issued jointly with SANEF.

He gave the assurance that the government viewed the media as partners in building a modern democracy “even though we compete for information. We need to build more synergy than see each other as opponents.”

But Cwele last year also charged that opponents of the Bill believed South Africa had no legitimate national security to protect. “Clearly, this is far from the truth,” Cwele told MPs in late October. He added the approach adopted by government towards the Bill was “under-written” by the International Covenant for Human Rights and the European Covenant on Human Rights. It was also in line with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the South African Press Association reported him as saying.

Cwele said the Bill was a necessary tool that government required to tackle growing challenges such as espionage, information peddling and the protection of critical databases in government through cyber crime. Cwele said the media seemed to hold “preconceived views” about the intentions of the Bill and that the government was concerned about the image of the country that had been created by these articles.

SAPA noted that Cwele depicted South Africa as a country riddled with spies and information peddlers that sought to destabilise democracy, undermine national food security and steal valuable commercial information. “Some of their collection targets include profiles of senior government leaders, such as the president, the deputy president, ministers and deputy ministers and the leadership of the ruling and opposition parties. These foreign intelligence agents sought to “unduly influence the evolution of politics and future plans of South Africa,” he added.

Cwele dismissed protest from the Democratic Alliance that his claims smacked of paranoia dating from the Mbeki era. “There is no political paranoia. We are talking about political reality,” he countered. Baseless rumours of political plots have already done severe damage, the minister said, citing the “Browse Mole report” generated during the intra-African National Congress succession struggle between now-President Jacob Zuma and his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, as an example. “Consequently these peddled claims have caused untold disruptions and divisions within the government system, ruling party and its allies and have negatively affected the project of democratisation of the country.”