“Secrecy” Bill set to become law tomorrow

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Members of Parliament will tomorrow vote on the controversial Protection of State Information Bill. The vote was scheduled for Wednesday, but was moved up a day at the weekend.

National Press Club chairman Yusuf Abramjee yesterday called on all South Africans to wear black on the day, adding the vote reminds of “Black Wednesday” – October 19, 1977 – when the apartheid government banned two newspapers and 19 black consciousness movements.

The office of ANC chief whip, Mathole Motshekga, issued its own statement on Sunday evening, showing distaste for the comparison between events in 1977 and South Africa today, the Daily Maverick says. “The National Press Council’s likening of the scheduled democratic and constitutional process in Parliament this week, in which the draft legislation on the Protection of State Information (Bill) would be put to vote, to the infamous 1977 Black Wednesday, is nothing short of a reckless hyperbole aimed at peddling misinformation and distorting history.”
“The Council’s plans, in which a democratic and open parliamentary process would be declared ‘Black Wednesday’ by having people dress in black, are tantamount to staging a parody of one of the saddest political events of our history.”

Meanwhile, the ANC has accused former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils of wanting to rule the state security department “from the grave”. ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu says the party found his criticism on the Bill – last week – strange.
“The African National Congress finds it strange and shocking that Comrade (Cde) Ronnie Kasrils… wants to rule the department … from the grave through his negative commentary on the information Bill,” he said in a statement. “Cde Kasrils failed to deal with the mess in the then department of intelligence, where he was a minister, which left us vulnerable to machinations of foreign spies, information peddlers, and espionage activities.”

The ANC would have expected Kasrils, as a former minister and a member of the ANC, to have engaged the current minister Siyabonga Cwele, instead of “posing as a champion of civil society”, the South African Press Association reported Mthembu saying. “We have done everything in our power not to respond to the ravings of Cde Ronnie Kasrils ever since he started on this route,” Mthembu said. “We always believed that he would find it appropriate to stop such unwarranted attacks on his government and contribute constructively to any matter in the public domain.”

Mthembu said the ANC wrongly believed that Kasrils would desist from using the media to keep a public profile. “It is quite clear that we were wrong in all these respects.” Mthembu urged Kasrils to come forward and make a constructive contribution to the department that he had led and to the country’s security, SAPA added. “It is our belief that if he prefers to engage with his ANC on this matter of importance, the security of state information, he will find the ANC and its government ready for such engagement,” he said.

On Friday, Kasrils condemned as “disgraceful” Cwele’s claim that opponents protesting against the bill were agents of foreign spies. Cwele made the assertion during the debate on the bill in the National Assembly on Wednesday. “This is precisely the mindset that I fear as a former minister of intelligence,” Kasrils said. “Consider the impact of such inflammatory statements on members of the intelligence services. They will be encouraged to adopt a mindset already noted for excessive secrecy, exaggerated fears, and paranoia. And they are the very officials who the bill entrusts with all the tasks under the bill once it becomes law.”

Kasrils said he had proposed a public interest defence for a 2008 draft of the same bill, after consultations with journalists. It was never tabled in Parliament, but was “scrapped by ruling party representatives at the committee stage after I resigned from government in September 2008”, he said.

The Times newspaper meanwhile reports the ANC has finally started to consult its constituencies about the contentious draft law. The ruling party has sent out its MPs to all the provinces to explain the intricacies of the secrecy bill and how it affects them. But alliance partner COSATU (the Congress of SA Trade Unions) which has been critical of the proposed law – has dismissed this as too little too late.

Last week COSATU accused the ANC of “abandoning” the public consultation process. It also threatened to challenge the Bill in the Constitutional Court if it is passed in its current form. COSATU Saturday said a range of hastily convened weekend meetings would not afford the ANC enough time to consult all stakeholders. “We need more time. Clearly that time scale is not enough given the importance of the issue. There must be genuine consultations with all important stakeholders, including Cosatu,” spokesman Patrick Craven said.

The Bill has been referred to the National Council of Provinces for further deliberations and then back to the National Assembly for a vote tomorrow, with the ANC expected to use its majority to ram it through.

The ANC caucus Friday night issued a statement outlining a weekend-long public consultation process and venues across the country. ANC caucus spokesman Moloto Mothapo denied that the public consultation process had been hastily arranged. He said they conducted an initial roadshow to all the provincial legislatures to explain the bill to ANC MPLs. The public part of consultations was next on the agenda, he said. “From the onset we said this is going to be taken to the people, we would take everybody on board but as soon as we finished [consulting] our parliamentary caucuses.”

Mothapo said public consultations would continue even if the Bill is passed. “Public consultations will continue … this will not come to an end just because the Bill has been passed by the National Assembly,” he said. But Craven said it was pointless to continue discussions after the Bill is signed into law. “It doesn’t make sense. If it is a law it has to be obeyed, you cannot consult at that stage,” he said.

Civil society and media groups have decried the omission of a public interest clause that can be used as a defence for publishing classified information on the basis that the public has a right to know. COSATU has expressed serious reservations with the bill that aims to criminalise the possession and disclosure of classified state information. It objects to the current definition of national interest, saying it has been broadened to criminalise the exposure of “economic, scientific or technological secrets and acts that have diplomatic implications”.
“Public interest must necessarily overlap with a correctly construed definition of national interest, and in many instances should even override the protection for diplomatic relations or against economic harm, especially where it is necessary to expose serious irregularities or corruption,” said the labour federation in a statement.

The SA National Editors’ Forum Thursday said it was deeply concerned at the way in which Cwele had shut the door on the possibility of the Bill being amended. The forum has argued that provision for a public interest defence would enable a journalist, whistleblower or citizen who disclosed classified information, if charged, to enter a defence of publication in the public interest. “If Cwele’s latest obdurate stand prevails and the Bill is passed without the safeguard, [the forum] and other critics will have no alternative but to press for the legislation to be referred to the Constitutional Court for it to rule on its constitutionality,” the forum said.



The editors’ forum also said that it took “strong exception” to assertions by Cwele in the National Assembly on Wednesday that “foreign spies” were paying civil society groups to oppose the bill. “SANEF is one of the groups that oppose the bill and rejects the minister’s claims as insulting and libellous.”