Late movement to counter “secrecy Bill”

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The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have today tabled 123 amendments to Protection of State Information Bill. This Bill has been referred by an ad hoc committee to the National Assembly for adoption and cannot return to the Committee for further deliberation unless there are proposed amendments to it. The National Assembly is set to vote on the controversial Bill tomorrow.

“The IFP and the FF+ strongly believe that the debate on the controversial Bill is everything but finalised and must continue until national consensus is reached,” the two parties say in a joint statement. “Moreover, the IFP has also raised with the Speaker the that the Bill is out of order on account of it dealing with provincial archives which is a matter on which Provinces have exclusive legislative competence, which means that the Bill has been tagged erroneously and is beyond the legislative competence of Parliament.”

African National Congress Members of Parliament are meanwhile in a Caucus meeting that according to a ruling party statement, will amongst other issues, deliberate on the Bill. “It is a standard practice for Caucus to receive detailed information and conduct discussion on Bills that are scheduled for tabling in Parliament.”

The draft law, labelled a “secrecy bill” by opponents and critics, was adopted by the ad hoc committee despite opposition and civil society concerns. Former intelligence services minister Ronnie Kasrils said on Saturday the Bill aimed at shielding South Africa’s “silly leaders” from embarrassment, not protecting the country’s real official secrets. Speaking to hundreds of protesters who had earlier marched to Parliament to protest against the Bill he told them the legislation was wrong.

Standing on the flatbed of a truck parked outside Parliament’s main gates, Kasrils said it was essential people raised their voice against the Bill, he South African Press Association reported. “I have been asked by journalists why I, as a former minister, and a member of the ANC and the SA Communist Party, am at this march. The answer … is very simple. When your mother or father, brother or sister, your family, are doing the wrong thing … you raise your voice and say: That is wrong, it must not be done!” Kasrils said his love for his country “transcends the love of my party”.

On media freedom, he suggested government was pushing through the Bill to spare itself embarrassment. “This all-embracing secrecy bill … we smell and suspect is not about the real secrets that must be defended, but it’s to prevent those silly leaders who have egg on their face, who have been exposed by the media for doing foolish and embarrassing things.” Among such things, he said, were “misusing and abusing” tenders and contracts, as well as taxpayers’ money.

Saturday’s march was organised by Right2Know, a grouping of 400 civil society organisations that began fighting the controversial Bill a year ago. About 2000 people took part, including provincial premier Helen Zille; cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better know as Zapiro; and anti-HIV Treatment Action Campaign head Zackie Achmat.

After adoption by the National Assembly the Bill will go to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence before being signed into law by President Jacob Zuma. Those opposed to the measure say it seriously erodes the public’s right to know, and poses a threat to the freedom of the country’s press, SAPA adds.

According to an editorial in the Cape Times Friday, the Bill “fails the media freedom test” because – in its current form – anyone who had documents that had been classified state secret would be liable for criminal prosecution. And it fails because even if you have a compelling argument for publishing the contents of such documents, you will not have the right to argue that it was in the public interest.”

In a statement issued Friday evening, after its annual general meeting in Cape Town, the SA National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) said the Bill was a danger. “Its lack of any public interest defence, draconian sentencing regime, broadness of application and excessive shielding from scrutiny of the intelligence services are of grave concern.” SANEF said it would continue to oppose the Bill being enacted “and will take legal action if necessary”.



But ANC MP Llewellyn Landers in a letter to the City Press defended the Bill and criticised much of the media reporting on it, saying it “was riddled with misleading assertions, which exposed your understanding, or shall we say poor understanding, of the subject matter.” Landers, the senior ruling party MP on the ad hoc committee, said ruling party MPs understood the position of the media regarding the Bill. “We have no qualms about the position you take to oppose this Bill. That is the one of the benefits that our Constitution and the democratic system, which we fought so hard for, provide to all citizens and residents in this country.
“You go to great lengths invoking the readers’ emotions about how this Bill, when it becomes law, would hinder your work and “prevent you from reporting” on the kind of stories you pursue. You then give a list of stories that you claim ‘the readers will not be able to read about because the documents you use to generate such stories would be classified’. None of the stories referred to would pass the most basic of classification conditions set out in this Bill.
“Your assertion reveals a worrying development by commentators who do not understand the changes and innovations included in this Bill. Many, like you, did not read the versions produced by the ad hoc committee that processed this Bill. National security will be used as a basis for classification. The stories you are referring to have absolutely nothing to do with national security and one fails to understand how they could be classified so that your journalists would have difficulty reporting them.
“How are tenders linked to national security? How can matters of property the state holds on behalf of its citizens be linked to national security?”