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Black day for press freedom

An 11th-hour appeal to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe on Monday asked him to intervene to forestall Tuesday’s National Assembly vote on the Protection of State Information Bill, while the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) urged MPs not to support it.

Idasa wrote to Motlanthe as leader of government business in Parliament, raising concerns about the bill and the apparent failure of further consultation promised by the ANC after it temporarily shelved the bill in September.

The Right2Know campaigners march on Parliament.Photo: Gareth Smith. Credit: INLSA

Print and broadcast media editors were to fly to Cape Town from across the country to be in the public gallery for Tuesday’s sitting at 2pm.

The Right2Know campaign has planned protests outside Parliament and elsewhere in the country, while the National Press Club called for people to wear black in symbolic protest against “Black Tuesday”.

Given the ANC’s majority, the bill is likely to be passed. Its MPs are under a three-line whip for the vote. This does not mean the bill becomes law, as it must first be referred to the National Council of Provinces, which has the power to start a fresh round of public consultation, and to make amendments.

Cosatu affiliate the SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) added its voice to the outcry on Monday: “The bill is not ready to be signed into law and set to negatively impact the noble fight against corruption.”

Municipal workers had been victimised and in some cases physically attacked for exposing corruption in local government that robbed the poor of desperately needed services, said Samwu spokesman Tahir Sema.

“Our members were only able to expose crooked tenderpreneurs, rampant cronyism and nepotism by having access to documents, and being able to use them to alert authorities (about) malpractices.

“If the Protection of Information Bill is signed into law, it will enable a whole range of municipal documents to be classified as secret, and will also serve to protect those who are misusing their positions for private and nefarious gain.”

In its letter sent to all MPs on Monday Sanef acknowledged the important work done in the past 18 months by MPs to substantially improve the Bill. But the changes had not gone far enough to “render the bill safe for democracy”.

In its current form, the bill “will limit the work of government departments, chapter nine institutions, Parliament, trades unions, the media, and civil society by choking off the flow of vital information, and restricting crucial accountability mechanisms”.

Chief among flaws in the bill was the absence of a public interest defence, “crucial to ensuring the bill does not become an instrument to suppress information that may reveal serious wrong-doing”.

“Also of serious concern is the blanket secrecy afforded our powerful intelligence structures, secrecy that shields excessively from scrutiny, and leaves little recourse when they abuse their authority.

“We recognise the need for a reformed legislative regime to govern the management of sensitive state information. You now have an opportunity to ensure such legislation advances our democracy, rather than injuring it,” Sanef told MPs. “The first step is to reject the bill by voting against it in the National Assembly.”

In their letter to Motlanthe, Idasa’s Judith February and Gary Pienaar warned against the ANC in Parliament rushing ahead with a bill “which will be the subject of a future constitutional challenge”.

They raised questions about the validity of the public consultation promised by the ANC in September.

“Regrettably, that public consultation process seemed flawed from the start. It was, at least initially, to be limited to the ANC’s own constituencies and was not part of a parliamentary process. Ordinarily, Parliament, as an institution, would call for further hearings and accept submissions from the public once more. This did not happen.”

It was also unclear how submissions the ANC might have received would filter back to Parliament.

Attempts by the Right2Know campaign – of which Idasa is a member – to try to get clarity from the ANC failed. This put a question-mark over the validity of the consultation process, it said.

“In the Doctors for Life and Matatiele cases, our Constitutional Court was clear about the requirements for public participation processes and what makes them not only legitimate but lawful,” Idasa wrote.

The ANC hastily convened meetings in provinces at the weekend and on tuesday. But reports indicated these were poorly attended.

A Right2Know activist said only 11 people pitched up for a meeting in Pretoria’s city hall on Monday, where a state security official, Dennis Dlomo, defended the bill as “protecting” South Africans against espionage, “illegal marriages and false transfer of house title deeds”.

Concerns included:

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