“Secrecy Bill” off table for now


The Protection of State Information Bill will not be tabled in the National Assembly today after the Parliamentary Caucus of the ruling African National Congress decided to postpone the introduction of the contentious draft “secrecy” law.

“The Chief Whip of the Majority Party will therefore, in line with the decision of the Caucus, withdraw the Bill from the Parliamentary Programme…,” the party said in a statement yesterday afternoon. “All political parties in Parliament are currently being consulted in this regard.”

The official opposition Democratic Alliance party and the Inkatha Freedom Party welcomed the move. “The ANC has announced that it is pulling the Protection of State Information Bill off [the] … parliamentary agenda and has justified this on account of certain parties wanting to make additional submissions,” the IFP said in a statement. “When asked who these parties are, the ANC chief whip stated that the ANC does not quite yet know, as the submissions went to the Speaker!

The fact is that the Bill could not have been passed tomorrow because the IFP has tabled 123 amendments to the Bill, which in terms of the Rules of Parliament requires the Bill to be deferred back to committee.
“The IFP also raised with the Speaker the erroneous tagging of the Bill, which in terms of the Rules makes it impossible for the Bill to be proceeded with until the flaw is corrected. Therefore, the ANC had no other legal option to do what they announced today – to pull the Bill off the agenda. We must now go back to committee and put into the Bill what the whole country wants into it: a public interest defence, a public domain defence, no crime for mere possession and reasonable prison sentences,” the party’s Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini said.

The DA called the delay a “window of opportunity.” It said the Bill “is a clear and present danger to the freedom of the press and other media in South Africa. That is why we have proposed that the Bill be amended to include a public interest defence that protects journalists and whistleblowers who disclose ‘classified’ information if it is in the public interest. We therefore hope that the delay will provide a window of opportunity for the ruling party to reconsider its position on the [Bill].
“The public outcry against the Bill indicates a groundswell of opposition to this threat against the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. South Africans have united to send a clear message to the ruling party, and the ANC’s decision to delay debating the Bill is a victory for democracy.
“We hope that the announcement to undertake further consultation on the proposed Bill is not mere lip service. Valid concerns have been raised by members of opposition parties, civil society, and from within the tripartite alliance. If the ANC is indeed serious about undertaking further consultation on the Bill, they should be open to changing their stance on the public interest defence.

The ANC fought hard to have the Bill finalised by September after a year of vigorous debate and had hoped to have it adopted by the National Assembly today. The ANC caucus, in its statement said discussion on the Bill yesterday was “characterised by robust and frank engagement” and sought to assess and evaluate whether the Bill was ready for processing in the National Assembly in its current form.
“Caucus noted with great appreciation the effort, dedication and remarkable devotion with which our members in the Ad Hoc Committee steered this Bill to the quality draft it is today. The draft Bill as it stands is a culmination of a truly democratic process – which entailed extensive public consultation with a wide range of representatives of our society, public debates and robust engagement amongst political parties in Parliament.
“All of the Bill’s 51 clauses have been thoroughly and carefully examined during at least 65 meetings held by the Ad Hoc Committee, and many significant changes were made in the process. The Bill has undergone over 123 amendments, which makes what we have currently a complete redraft of what was first submitted to Parliament in 2008,” the ANC said.
“Caucus thanks all political parties for their effort, civil society representatives and individuals for making their submissions and opinions through either formal or informal means on this Bill.
“We note that despite extensive consultations and improvements effected on the basis of submissions from stakeholders, there are still interested parties who need further hearing as well as other parties who have made late submissions. The ANC is of the view that these voices should be heard. The ANC Caucus has therefore decided not to table the Bill [today] in order to allow Parliament to engage further. This will afford Parliament an opportunity to report back to the people during the forthcoming constituency period.
“Further consultations and debates should therefore continue on the Bill with a view to further enhance the quality of the current draft. The consultations will involve ANC MPs taking the proposed legislation to the people through constituency work scheduled for next week, further discussion internally and with other political parties, and engaging views from the broader society.
“Caucus is fully alive to the fact that, given the diverse nature of our society and our multiparty parliamentary system – it is rare for laws to be a product of unanimous agreement amongst all parties. However, it is our responsibility as the ruling party to continue leading the process in such a way that it is inclusive of as many views as possible. This is consistent with our endeavours to ensure that we remain true to our resolve to continue enhancing the quality of the legislations this institution passes.”

The draft law, labelled a “secrecy bill” by opponents and critics, was adopted by the Ad Hoc Committee despite opposition and civil society concerns. Former intelligence services minister Ronnie Kasrils said on Saturday the Bill aimed at shielding South Africa’s “silly leaders” from embarrassment, not protecting the country’s real official secrets. Speaking to hundreds of protesters who had earlier marched to Parliament to protest against the Bill he told them the legislation was wrong.

Standing on the flatbed of a truck parked outside Parliament’s main gates, Kasrils said it was essential people raised their voice against the Bill, the South African Press Association reported. “I have been asked by journalists why I, as a former minister, and a member of the ANC and the SA Communist Party, am at this march. The answer … is very simple. When your mother or father, brother or sister, your family, are doing the wrong thing … you raise your voice and say: That is wrong, it must not be done!” Kasrils said his love for his country “transcends the love of my party”.

On media freedom, he suggested government was pushing through the Bill to spare itself embarrassment. “This all-embracing secrecy bill … we smell and suspect is not about the real secrets that must be defended, but it’s to prevent those silly leaders who have egg on their face, who have been exposed by the media for doing foolish and embarrassing things.” Among such things, he said, were “misusing and abusing” tenders and contracts, as well as taxpayers’ money.

Saturday’s march was organised by Right2Know, a grouping of 400 civil society organisations that began fighting the controversial Bill a year ago. About 2000 people took part, including provincial premier Helen Zille; cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better know as Zapiro; and anti-HIV Treatment Action Campaign head Zackie Achmat.