Second focus group to sit on ‘secrecy Bill’ this week

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A second focus group on the controversial “secrecy Bill” will be held this week to try to sort out differences between the state and civil society, with Parliament having only this week left to again extend the life of the special committee dealing with the Bill.

The Business Day newspaper reports special ad hoc parliamentary committee on the Protection of Information Bill is due to end its work on Friday but African National Congress (ANC) MPs on the committee have said the deadline cannot be met and the life of the committee should be extended into Parliament’s third term in August.

The ANC MPs on the committee have been accused of rushing the Bill through the parliamentary process — particularly when a process of clause by clause voting on it had begun — and being insensitive to the complaints of both civil society and opposition parties.

The Bill provides “for a new regime for the classification of state information and for extremely harsh prison sentences for those who divulge state secrets,” Business Day says. It has been claimed that the Bill will sound the death knell of investigative journalism and whistle-blowing on state corruption.

Yesterday, Verne Harris, head of the memory programme at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said those invited to the second focus group would be the same as the first, but this time, with the agreement of all, the South African National Editors Forum would also be invited to attend. Harris confirmed State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele had been invited but sent instead only a delegation under his special adviser Dennis Dlomo. He said the idea was to continue the “conversation” about the bill and follow it up with discussion in a public forum.

A review document presented to the first focus meeting says the foundation “convened a focus group with the intention of bringing together role-players from Parliament, the government and civil society to encourage conversation and dialogue about the bill. “The paper aims to situate the bills in context so as to enable a properly informed discussion of their content.” It is understood that a motion to extend the life of the ad hoc committee will be presented this week.

President Jacob Zuma last week “noted the anxiety brought about by the … Bill”. Speaking in Parliament Wednesday in reply to the debate on the Budget Vote of the Presidency the day before, he said: “Let me emphasise that the Bill has no malicious intent. It is intended to help us establish the practice and the principles of handling state information. All nation states have similar legislation, even the oldest democracies.”

Opposition MPs, civil society organisations and ruling African National Congress alliance partner COSATU have all taken issue with the Bill and threatened to refer it to the Constitutional Court. Among its contested provisions is a clause making mere possession of classified information an imprisonable offence. The Bill prescribes a minimum sentence of three years for possession and a further five year minimum sentence for passing on such information to anybody other than the police, without the option of a fine.



Pick n Pay chairman Gareth Ackerman earlier this month warned the Bill will also hamper South African businesses from making critical decisions essential to their survival. He in a statement urged business to be more vociferous in its opposition to the Bill. Foreign investors needed the assurance the country was serious about fighting corruption and that government affairs were transparent and accountable. Readily available and reliable economic data was essential, the South African Press Association reported him as saying. “In the absence of these features, South Africa’s reputation as a destination for foreign investment will suffer, as will our reputation as a state that is governed by the rules of openness and accessibility.” Business, which brought about job-creation and economic growth, could only flourish where there was a free flow of information.
“Without the assurance that financial data is not manipulated, that vital information is not being suppressed and that government malfeasance is not being concealed, it is virtually impossible for the private sector to make the long-term, strategic investment decisions that are essential to its survival. It should be of concern to the business community that any perceived limitation on media freedom will be negatively viewed by the international markets on which we rely for investment and confidence.”