Zuma “notes” secrecy Bill concerns


President Jacob Zuma says he has “noted the anxiety brought about by the Protection of Information Bill” now before the National Assembly. He was speaking in Parliament Wednesday in reply to the debate on the Budget Vote of the Presidency the day before.

“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,” Zuma said. “All nation states have similar legislation, even the oldest democracies. This Bill is now before this House and the concerns and issues raised by the Honourable Smuts need to be debated by this House.”

Opposition Democratic Alliance party justice spokeswoman Dene Smuts Tuesday again spoke out against the draft law, noting that had it been law in 2009, it would have entangled Zuma himself. “Is it the case that the honourable president was in possession of and then disclosed classified police intelligence intercepts which precipitated the collapse of his own prosecution charges of alleged corruption?” Smuts asked during the presidency’s budget debate in the National Assembly.
“I ask simply if he does not in fact find himself on the media’s side on the subject of possession and disclosure? What has been good for him must of course be good for everyone: he will not want to hold himself above the law,” she added.

The National Prosecuting Authority in 2009 withdrew charges that had dogged Zuma for years after his lawyer, Michael Hulley, confronted prosecutors with intercepted conversations between former NPA head Bulelani Ngcuka and Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy. The NPA said the tapes suggested political interference regarding a decision to re-institute the charges against Zuma, thereby contaminating the case. The inspector general for intelligence subsequently investigated how the tapes got into Hulley’s possession.

But this remains a mystery because Parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence – under the leadership of Cecil Burgess, who also chairs the committee drafting the information bill, refused to make it public, the South African Press Association reports.

Opposition MPs, civil society organisations and ruling African National Congress alliance partner Cosatu have all taken issue with the so-called secrecy 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 minumum sentence for passing on such information to anybody other than the police, without the option of a fine. Critics have warned it would curtail media freedom and discourage whistle-blowing.

Smuts said should the ANC drive the Bill through Parliament without making major changes to bring it in line with the Constitution, she would petition Zuma not to sign it. “We will be petitioning him on the protection of information bill under section 79 later this year, asking him to send the bill back here before assent if its unconstititutionalities (at least eight) are not cured.”

The MP Tuesday also questioned why staff of the Department of Basic Education have been told to sign an agreement that will bind them to secrecy even once they have left their posts. Smuts told Parliament she was in possession of a circular requesting all staff to sign an agreement barring them from divulging “any information or intelligence” about “sources, agents, operations, methods, technology, finance, administration or department staff”.
“(This is) an example of what happens when secrecy applies indiscriminately,” Smuts said. Hope Mokgatlhe, spokeswoman for Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, said the minister was aware of “the circular but… it didn’t come from the minister, it came from the department”.

Bobby Soobrayan, the department’s director-general, had sent the memorandum, said Mokgatlhe.

Soobrayan’s spokesman did not answer calls made to him.