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Unless more time is provided to consider possible changes to the Protection of State Information Bill, a mockery will have been made of the recent countrywide public participation process, opponents warned on Tuesday.
Cosatu also weighed in on the bill, currently before the National Council of Provinces, where a multiparty committee has a May 17 deadline to finish processing it.
The trade union federation wants the bill amended to afford better protection to whistleblowers wanting to expose corruption.
“The bill must be amended so that exposing information about corruption, crime, misuse of public money or incompetence, in the public interest, can never be a criminal offence,” spokesman Patrick Craven said in Cosatu’s Workers’ Day statement.
Whether or not the committee has enough time to properly consider what members were told during the public hearings in each of the provinces and, more recently, at Parliament, is now at issue.
Its programme currently allows for just two meetings, on May 4 and 11, to consider the proposals, including those made in 259 written submissions, of which only one was in favour of the bill in its current form.
Opposition parties and civil society groups are calling for the committee’s life to be extended, for which a resolution in the NCOP would be necessary.
A failure to do so would amount to “rubber-stamping… one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in our recent history”, the leader of the DA’s NCOP delegation, Alf Lees, said on Tuesday.
Lees said he would ask committee chairman Raseriti Tau (ANC) to allow for more time to ensure the committee “thoroughly and meaningfully deliberates on the extraordinarily high volume of public submissions”.
He said the committee also needed enough time set aside to deliberate on the bill’s content and, if necessary, clause-by-clause deliberations “during which time the necessary and required amendments can be made”.
The National Assembly passed the bill in November with 229 votes to 107. Opposition parties were united against it, and more than 30 ANC MPs were absent from Parliament on the day of the vote.
A subsequent investigation ordered by ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga resulted in three ruling party MPS – Ben Turok, Gloria Borman and Salam Abram – being scheduled to appear on Wednesday before the party’s national disciplinary committee.
Disciplinary committee chairman Derek Hanekom could not be reached for comment yesterday. The Star has it on reliable authority, however, that the hearing has been postponed.
The Right2Know (R2K) campaign, a loose coalition of more than 400 civil society groups opposed to the bill, has meanwhile slammed as a sham the NCOP’s public participation process.
National co-ordinator Murray Hunter accused legislators of “wasting hundreds of hours” in public hearings “simply to tick the box for public consultation as required by the constitution”.
“I don’t see how any of the concerns raised (by the public) can be meaningfully engaged with in the short period of time they have given themselves”, he told The Star on Tuesday. “They have allowed society to raise its concerns about the legislation and now look set to rubber-stamp the ANC’s decision to force the bill through.”
While much improved on the draft initially introduced to Parliament, a key concern about the current version remains the lack of a public-interest defence clause that would protect those who reveal classified state information in the public interest.
Others include the bill’s wide scope, the powers it gives the state security minister and the harsh jail sentences of between five and 25 years it provides for.