Activists call for more Info Bill amendments

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The Right2Know Campaign leads a march to Parliament against the Protection of State Information Bill. Photo: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA

 

Rights groups urged the African National Congress on Friday to bring further amendments to the Protection of State Information Bill.

They said concessions made this week were significant but fell short of meeting their demands.

The Right2Know (R2K) campaign pointed out that a proposal by the ANC to protect whistleblowers who reveal classified information to expose corruption, did not extend to other offences created by the act.

These include being in possession of such information, which can be punished by up to five years in prison.

“This protection is an improvement, but is not meaningful until it is extended to all offences contained in the bill,” said the group, which was born in opposition to the bill.

It added that the ANC had not budged on calls to decriminalise the possession and publication of state secrets once they were put in the public domain.

Nor, it said, did a change proposed by the ruling party on section 49 of the act go far enough to remove one of critics' main objections to the bill Ä that it would limit the accountability of the intelligence community.

The ANC agreed to narrow this provision to criminalise only the exposure of classified information relating to security matters - whereas before this applied to any information - but retained a maximum sentence of 10 years for such an act.

The party did not apply the new exemption given to whistleblowers on exposing wrongdoing to this clause, the R2K's national organiser Murray Hunter said.

“Thus, the complete veil of secrecy over the work of spooks remains intact.”

Hunter urged the ruling party to write “a full public interest defence” into the bill, “so that it cannot be used to threaten or imprison people who seek or expose the truth”.

Alison Tilley from the Open Democracy Advice Centre noted that the ANC had so far not heeded a call by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to safeguard the right of Chapter 9 institutions in the bill.

“Chapter 9 institutions are not being given the right to receive classified information.”

Madonsela raised the point in parliamentary hearings in March, warning that if the bill became law without such safeguards she could be arrested for routinely receiving secret files.

Tilley also said the ANC had not addressed the dissonance in the bill on the Promotion of Access to Information Act, which it attempts to trump in section 1 (4).

Legal experts have repeatedly warned that this provision is unconstitutional because it would claw back a right granted by prior, constitutionally mandated legislation.

The ANC's amendments partly read like a response to threats from labour federation Cosatu to challenge the bill in court unless protection were given to whistleblowers and the powers of the intelligence operatives were checked.

But Raseriti Tau, the chairman of the ad hoc committee in the National Council of Provinces, insisted on Friday that the proposals were not dictated by Luthuli House and political considerations but rather by concerns raised by members of the public.

“That this bill seeks to protect corruption Ä that came out of all the public hearings,” he said.

“There was no mandate that I know of. Luthuli House is on record as saying 'we respect the parliamentary process'.”

Tau held open the door for further changes before the committee is expected to report to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) by the end of June.

“We can be persuaded further and we can also still further persuade people on other things.” - Sapa


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