“Secrecy Bill” debate extended


African National Congress (ANC) MPs on Friday called for an extension of the looming deadline to complete drafting the Protection of Information Bill after ruling party ally COSATU voiced strong opposition to the draft law.

“We want to request an extension of the the life of this ad hoc committee,” ANC lawmaker Luwellyn Landers said after a meeting of the party’s study group on the legislation. “The deadline of June 24 is inadequate.”

The South African Press Association says Landers suggested that the new deadline be somewhere in the second week of the new parliamentary session, which starts on July 22. Chairman Cecil Burgess then agreed to seek an extension from the Speaker’s office.

This move marks a turnaround for the ANC majority on the committee, which had in the past two weeks seemed determined to drive the bill through Parliament despite widespread calls that it was unconstitutional. Burgess had stated that he would not entertain endless debate and instead opened formal clause by clause deliberations and put contentious points to the vote, leaving the opposition outnumbered in its call to narrow the scope of the so-called “secrecy Bill”.

The development follows comments by Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele on Thursday that there was no haste to enact the legislation. He said the deadline for the Bill to be passed had been set by Parliament,not his department, which is sponsoring the Bill. “Really, if there is that (haste), we will not support that, because we would like all the stakeholders to engage,” he said, adding that most of the criticism of the bill raised recently by COSATU, had been addressed.

On Tuesday, COSATU threw down the gauntlet on the bill. It asked for talks with the ANC and threatened to launch a Constitutional Court challenge should the Bill be passed in its current form.

The trade union federation said the provisions of the Bill could be abused to cover up corruption and the lengthy prison sentences prescribed for people who make classified information public posed a threat to whistleblowers.

A day later the Treatment Action Campaign weighed in, saying the bill would make it impossible for civic organisations to hold government to account. The Bill has long been seen as a threat to media freedom but rights campaigners say the public as a whole would be affected if all organs of state are allowed to classify information.

The Right 2 Know Campaign, born out of opposition to the bill, said the legislation would rob poor communities of access to information on service delivery. On Wednesday former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils said the rush to complete the Bill by the parliamentary committee was worrying and would lead to huge problems and unnecessary tensions in the future. “I hate to envisage the unforeseen consequences,” he said in a letter sent to the South African Press Association by the CAmpaign. “It will certainly undermine public trust in the intelligence and security services at a time when confidence needs to be built. Even at this late stage, one would remind our legislators of the adage, ‘more haste less speed’,” he said.

The Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) on Thursday said it too was deeply perturbed by the “brazen nature” in which the committee was attempting to push it through Parliament. “The serious concern regarding this legislation as it presently stands is the ambiguity and broadness of interpretation,” deputy general secretary Krister Janse van Rensburg said in a statement. “We do not believe that any person or organisation will challenge the need to replace the Protection of Information Act drawn up in 1982. However, this new legislation is a direct infringement on South Africans’ right to information. In a democratic country, citizens must have the right to be informed on all matters of public interest that directly affect them and the country they live in.” FEDUSA is the second largest labour grouping in South Africa after COSATU.