As President Jacob Zuma defended the Protection of Information Bill yesterday, saying it was “without malicious intent”, ANC veteran Kader Asmal warned that it was “fatally flawed” and called on South Africans to reject it.

Asmal’s hard-hitting critique of the controversial draft legislation in a letter to the Right2Know campaign was released yesterday while Zuma was in Parliament, responding to the debate on the presidency’s budget vote.

Zuma said the bill – currently the focus of a broad civil society campaign to have it substantially redrafted – was intended to “help us establish the practice and principles of handling information”.

“All nation states have similar legislation – even the oldest democracies,” Zuma said.

But Asmal rejected the bill in its entirety and urged all South Africans to join him in opposition.

Asmal said he had up until now refrained from publicly commenting on the bill, because he felt that the ad hoc committee processing it would have been persuaded by the “weight of opposition of this measure, to take this appalling measure back to the drawing board” and given that the bill proposed such “wide-ranging changes to the present law with the most severe penalties I have known, that the relevant ministers should have felt it necessary either to defend the bill or to place amendments”.

“Since this has not happened, my conscience will not let my silence be misunderstood. I ask all South Africans to join me in rejecting this measure in its entirety,” Asmal said.

The bill, he said, was “so deeply flawed” that tinkering with its preamble or accepting a minor change here or there would not alter its fundamental nature – that it did not pay sufficient attention to the nature of freedom of expression.

He advised the ruling party that there would be “no shame” in withdrawing the bill to “go back to the drawing board” and warned that if it were passed, civil society would “deservedly” ask for the “maximum public support to oppose the bill in other ways”.

He pointed to the decision by the Thabo Mbeki administration to withdraw the Courts Bill, saying it showed “a measure of self-confidence to do the right thing in a right way”.

“This is lacking at present,” said the former senior ANC national executive committee member. “My appeal, as a loyal member of the ANC who played some role in the drafting of this section in the internal debates in the ANC, is to the government to withdraw the bill – and to set up an independent and non-party political committee to draw up legislation that rightly emphasises the right of the state to protect legitimate state secrets, with a narrow ambit as to who will be qualified to do so and the onus on those who purport to demand such a classification.”

Asmal resigned from Parliament in 2008 – shortly after Mbeki was recalled and replaced by Zuma during the ANC’s Polokwane elective conference – after 14 years on the ruling party benches.

“My fear or anxiety is that if the bill is forced through the ad hoc committee, people whose judgment I trust will lose faith in the democratic process,” said Asmal.

The constitution was clear in that Section 19 embraced the right of freedom of the press and other media. It went further by taking into account recent developments in that it guaranteed freedom to receive or share information or ideas, said the former education minister.

It was “unsatisfactory” to expect the Constitutional Court to do the work that Parliament should be doing.

The bill, which imposes minimum prison sentences for being in possession of and publishing classified information, is widely expected to be heading for constitutional challenge. “I feel that the executive has not given sufficient attention to the constitutional provisions and the way that the limitation of this right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society,” said Asmal.

Cosatu recently asked for a meeting with the ANC to raise its concerns about the bill, which it wanted to be “fundamentally re-drafted”.

The ANC-dominated drafting committee has called for a two-month extension of its June 24 deadline to finalise the bill, after Cosatu joined the groundswell of opposition to the measure. - Pretoria News