MPs contemplate info bill target

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Lawmakers will today resume their fraught deliberations on the controversial Protection of Information Bill. MPs on Thursday last week struggled to agree on the notion of precisely what the Protection of Information Bill tries to prevent and who it tries to punish.

The issue has prompted days and nights of laboured deliberation on whether “hostile activity” belongs in the Bill, which is undergoing considerable redrafting after it triggered a public outcry, the South African Press Association reports. MPs from all parties agree that obtaining and disclosing top secret information for the purpose of espionage is a crime punishable with not less than 15 and not more than 25 years in prison.

The ruling African National Congress has insisted that espionage applies only to foreign intelligence agencies, not to the “enemy within” trying to destabilise the country or supplying information to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. “Hostile activity deals with prejudice to the state regardless of who the actors are,” ANC MP and ad hoc committee chairman Luwellyn Landers said.

The opposition Democratic Alliance party’s MP David Maynier, from the called for the notion to be removed from the bill, handled under the heading of espionage or expressly limited to disclosure to “a non-state actor engaged in hostile activity”. If not, he warned, it could be abused to persecute the media – one of the main concerns about the bill that drove calls for a redraft – or even opposition parties, SAPA said. “We must specify the mischief we are trying to prevent. As the clause stands, it could criminalise disclosure to a media group even if was done in the public interest,” he said. “It would be possible perhaps for a malicious prosecutor to argue that News24 had been aiding or abetting a hostile activity. If the concern is al-Qaeda, let’s legislate for that.”

Landers suggested it should be left up to the courts to decide whether something, including a media report, constituted prejudice to the state. To this, the DA’s Dene Smuts replied: “No, we don’t want to go all the way to the court.” She said the party would not agree to harsh penalties for the crime until it was understood to be restricted to “the intentional contribution to a hostile activity”.

ANC members said on the sidelines of the deliberations that they wanted the Bill to deal not only with threats from outside the country, but from within in the form of errant or former intelligence agents. This worry also informed its reluctance to heed calls to restrict the instances where information could be classified to protect the national security.

Throughout the week, ANC MPs have called for discussion on this point to be delayed until the party has finalised its position. Dennis Dlomo, the special adviser to State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, said despite opposition the government was adamant that information-peddling should remain on the list of acts from which national security should be safeguarded through classification. “We feel very strongly about information peddling,” he said.

Dlomo said it was established fact that governments, nations and regions risked damage when people deliberately fed the intelligence community false information. The example most often used by him and ANC colleagues is the leaked 2006 Special Browse Mole report that alleged there was a foreign-backed plot to bring Jacob Zuma to power and warned of insurrection if he did not become president. “We are not talking about the media, but about the threat posed by former intelligence operatives in South Africa and outside peddling half-truths,” Dlomo said. Opposition lawmakers believe the ruling party is primarily seeking to protect itself from plots and being destabilised.

SAPA added that despite the remaining disagreements, lawmakers are confident they can produce an acceptable official secrets law by the deadline of late September, contrary to the opinion of academics that “emergency surgery” in Parliament would not work.

MPs debating the 11th version of the proposed law also argued the issue of stiff jail sentences for people who find classified information dumped in their mailboxes, The Times reported. “This prompted a fierce debate with the opposition on how people such as MPs and journalists could be held responsible if someone dumped classified documents in their mailbox,” the paper said.

Opposition MPs said “with relief” that the current version was a far cry from that of two months ago, when the bill was seen as a regressive, unconstitutional attempt to muzzle the media and shroud the government’s workings in secrecy by allowing all departments to classify information. SAPA added.

This was an improvement from even late last month when ANC lawmakers proposed increasing the instances in which information can be classified to protect national security. Raising the spectre of WikiLeaks, Landers called for secrecy to apply to protect South Africa not only from attack, but also from information-peddling and the exposure of economic dossiers and state security matters.

Asked by the DA why he wanted to insert three new causes for classification into the bill, Landers replied: “How can the exposure of a matter of state security not affect our national security? “If a matter of state security of ours is exposed we cannot just say it is part of those things, Julien Assange and that.”

His colleague Anneliese van Wyk added that the definition of national security was being broadened in democracies around the world, as the realisation had dawned that health crisis and food shortages could threaten the stability of a country. “If we don’t broaden our definition the next generation will suffer.”

The issue of state security matters raises a red flag to the opposition in part because of the government’s increasing reluctance to provide information on issues like President Jacob Zuma’s flight schedule because they argue it would pose a security threat.

Earlier attempts to include economic and scientific secrets in the ambit of the bill greatly contributed to the public outrage around it, SAPA said. In response to public submissions, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele agreed late last year that it should be cut from the draft legislation. The DA argued that it was wrong to seek to reintroduce it now, along with developmental issues like health, food and water, because the ANC agreed in June that the Bill would only allow the intelligence agencies to classify information and this was not their ambit.
“It is not the business of the intelligence agency to sort out health crisis,” Maynier said. “In a democratic country the brief of intelligence agencies needs to be limited to national security threats. We do not need the spooks in this country to be going through the bottom drawers of the department of health.”

Right2Know Campaign coordinator Murray Hunter cautionss that despite the concessions made in June seeming to limit the classification to conventional official secrets, the Bill would still allow government to classify almost any matter it chose by defining it as a state security issue.