Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s office is in the process of reviewing the latest draft of the Protection of Information Bill, she has said at a whistle-blowing conference.
“I have been asked on several occasions… to comment on this bill. The bill is particularly relevant to today’s discussion as it has implications for protected whistle-blowing,” she said in a speech prepared for delivery yesterday. “My take on the bill has always been that it should be evaluated in terms of its ability to balance the country’s (state) security needs against the constitutionally protected value of open democracy and our national commitments to clean and accountable governance.”
The South African Press Association added Madonsela said that the original draft bill posed problems to her office. “The original draft bill which restricted the provision of information to the police obviously presented an impediment to the functioning of my office. The draft has been reworked. As we speak, my office is planning a roundtable to discuss the latest draft.”
MPs handling the bill this week seemed to move toward some agreement about the contentious piece of legislation, which has also been slammed by media freedom groups. On Tuesday, it was suggested that any application to access classified information should be done through the same process set out in the Protection of Access to Information Act of 2000 (PAIA), SAPA added. Opposition parties welcomed the proposal, which would allow the release of information if it were in the public interest.
The original bill would have made it very easy for the government to classify information and prevent its publication, even if it were in the public interest. Madonsela said her office would assess the implications of the draft before pronouncing on it.
Her comments come just days after Minister of State Security Siybonga Cwele pledged the media would be consulted when regulations detailing the introduction of the to-be-Act are drafted. Cwele gave the commitment at a two-hour meeting with the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) in Pretoria on Friday. “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.”
The South African Press Association reported the SANEF delegation had earlier set out a number of concerns it still had with the Bill, including its view for the need to insert a public interest defence clause on the publication of classified information, and the establishment of an independent review mechanism for the classification and adjudication of information.
Cwele undertook to take SANEF’s oft-repeated concerns and submissions forward for discussion with the government. He again said the proposed legislation would be a law of general application, without specific conditions applying to the media, because the government had no intention of muzzling media.
SANEF deputy chairwoman Mary Papayya said: “The dialogue was constructive and we welcomed the minister’s transparent attitude and understanding of the role of the media and its importance in our democracy.” SANEF also welcomed “softening” changes already made to the proposed legislation but argued that further checks and balances were required for the value of the changes made to date to be realised. “Minister Cwele gave us the assurance that government viewed media as partners in building a democracy, even though we compete for information,” she said.
The discussion followed a two-day meeting between SANEF last month. SAPA says the Bill is now unlikely to be finalised before Parliament goes into its summer recess this month. Parliament’s ad-hoc committee processing the Bill confirmed on Friday that it had asked the legislature to extend its lifetime to allow work on the Bill to continue next year.