Secrecy Bill ad hoc committee given new deadline


National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu has extended the lifespan of the committee guiding the controversial Protection of Information Bill through the lower house of Parliament by two months after a deadline to report to the body passed on Friday with many critical issues still unresolved.

“The lifespan of committee has been extended to March 31,” said committee chairman Cecil Burgess. The South African Press Association reports he had earlier rejected a request from ANC colleague Luwellyn Landers to ask for an extension of one year, instead of a few months at a time, as has repeatedly happened. The Sunday Times ads he was supporting a similar call by Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts and African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart.

The DA supported the proposal, SAPA added. The opposition party also welcomed suggestions by Burgess that Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele would return to brief the committee on “best practices and the public interest matter”. The latter remains a major sticking point on the Bill. The opposition, media and activists have been trying to persuade the ruling African National Congress to include a clause that would allow whistle-blowers and journalists to argue they published classified information in the public interest. Cwele has said he would not countenance it.

MPs on Friday returned to the debate on whether the Bill should set up a separate process for requesting access to classified information, or whether all applications should be handled through the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). That Act came under the spotlight recently when the State announced it would appeal a Supreme Court of Appeal ruling in favour of the Mail & Guardian, ordering the presidency to release report on Zimbabwe’s 2002 elections. The case has raised concerns over whether an affected third party needs to be considered in a decision to reveal classified information.

Also at issue is a clause in the Bill giving all organs of state the power to classify information. In a submission this week the Institute for Democracy in South Africa argued this meant 1001 entities could file information as confidential, secret, or top secret, ranging from state departments to parastatals to museums, theatres and zoos. The opposition is fighting for the scope of the Bill to be narrowed to matters of intelligence, national security and possibly international relations, but the ANC is rejecting this position.

Landers insisted this week all state organs should have the power to classify information. He said it could be necessary to “ring fence” information for reasons other than national security or protecting intelligence.

No date has yet been set for the committee to resume its work.