STAFF REPORTER

A STORM is brewing over the government’s bid to severely punish those who issue severe weather warnings without official sanction.

The proposed SA Weather Service Amendment Bill makes it illegal to issue such warnings without written permission from the weather service, and those found guilty could face fines of up to R5 million or five years’ jail.

In the case of a second or subsequent conviction, a fine of up to R10m or 10 years’ jail will apply.

The founder of the SA Weather and Disaster Observation Service (Sawdos), Johan Terblanche, said on its blog that he was concerned about the bill.

Sawdos publishes weather observations from the public.

“As the amendment bill now reads, nobody will be able to issue any warning of approaching severe weather.” He said the body also posted images and video on Twitter, Facebook, their blogs and radio networks to warn the public about severe weather.

He added that obtaining permission to issue a warning “takes time – that is, if you can get hold of the designated person”.

Sawdos would submit written comments on the matter to the portfolio committee at the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs.

“Real-time weather observations are absolutely crucial as people can observe weather phenomena that instruments cannot see,” Terblanche tweeted.

Vaclav Hornik, who runs the WindGuru weather service website based in the Czech Republic, was shocked at the development.

“I do not know what the practices are in SA (but) my personal opinion is that this is unbelievable… it’s like it was here during the communist regime. Freedom of speech punished? It’s a nightmare.”

Chief director of communications at the Department of Environmental Affairs Albi Modise said the bill was aimed at protecting the public against the distribution of inaccurate or hoax warnings or predictions.

“(These) could cause public panic and lead to evacuations and/or the unwarranted waste of resources (money, people and technology). Once the bill is passed, the government will be able to act against people who wittingly or unwittingly issue warnings based on false or misleading information that effectively cause public harm.”

On Twitter, re-tweeting an SA Weather Service severe weather or air pollution-related warning would not be considered a contravention of the bill.

However... a Tweet that provides an unauthorised warning based on false or misleading information that gives rise to, or may give rise to, unwarranted public panic and reaction (evacuations, unnecessary mobilisation of emergency services) will be considered a contravention… as would a re-tweet of such a ‘hoax’.”

The SABC’s former weather man, environmental scientist Simon Gear, said that while he understood the concern to prevent people from spreading panic through misinformation, he also understood the need to warn people of impending disaster.

“Four years ago rumours flew around that tornadoes would strike Johannesburg – nothing happened.

“I don’t see what prosecuting the people or group responsible would achieve – they were genuinely trying to warn people.”

Interested parties can submit written comments to the department not later than tomorrow, with public hearings scheduled for January 17 and 18.