The Department of Environmental Affairs has signalled a readiness to change a draft law that imposes penalties of up to R5 million on those who issue unauthorised severe weather warnings.
The proposed law also fiercely guards the SA Weather Service, punishing those who harm it, and possibly even its image, in some way.
Environmental Affairs said in response to a storm this week over the South African Weather Service Amendment Bill that it would reconsider if it had “unintended negative consequences”.
The bill requires written permission from the SA Weather Service for anyone wishing to issue a severe weather alert. Those who do not obtain permission face a fine of up to R5m (and/or five years in jail), and repeat offenders R10m (and/or 10 years).
These penalties also apply to those who “supply false or misleading information about the Weather Service”. It carries the same for those who commit any act or omission “which detrimentally affects or is likely to detrimentally affect the Weather Service”.
Acknowledging the row, highlighted this week in the Daily News, the department said the law was a sincere attempt to protect South Africans against false, misleading or hoax warnings that could and had resulted in panic, stress and injury.
The SA Weather Service had always been the only official source of severe weather warnings. It is already illegal for others to issue them without approval. But it was the proposed criminal consequences that were raising concerns, the statement said.
“One of the important lessons from this is that active public participation is fundamental to good law-making,” the department statement said.
“If indeed the bill’s honest attempts to protect South Africans… turn out to have unintended negative consequences that can be addressed in the final amendment, then it will be the public who must be thanked for its interest and involvement.
“Members of the public are accordingly urged to not only criticise the current draft, but to possibly propose alternative wording to ensure that the intention as indicated above is achieved.”
The department said a possible increase in extreme weather was one of the impacts of climate change.
“In order to ensure that we build our resilience to these impacts, we must ensure that our warning systems are efficient, effective and most importantly, credible,” it said.
“With the real possibility of increasing extreme weather events, the potential for false, misleading and/or hoax warnings significantly undermining public confidence in, and/or appropriate public reaction to warnings is of real concern.”
But it was also clear from various comments that these proposed provisions were perceived by some as going way beyond their intention: “It is suggested by commentators that the proposed amendment may actually limit access to weather and air pollution-related information that is in the interest of the general public’s health, safety and well-being.”
It was highly likely, given these concerns, that Parliament would request the department review the perceived problem provisions, the department said. “Naturally the department will then take a very close look at these concerns and will revert to Parliament with its… recommendations.”