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The Roman Catholic Church has urged the National Council of Provinces to amend the Protection of State Information Bill “to bring it in line” with the Constitution.
The church has hung a banner on the front façade of St Mary’s Cathedral, facing Parliament, protesting the possible passing of the bill.
Speaking at a special ceremony to “bless” the banner on Thursday, Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Rev Stephen Brislin, said South Africans were morally justified in opposing the bill because it did not serve the common good.
“We, the Catholic Church in Cape Town, strongly appeal to the National Council of Provinces to amend the Protection of State Information Bill (PSIB) in such a way as to bring it in line with our constitutional right to freedom of information,” he said.
As it stood, the bill undermined the right to information, which right was vital for the full exercise of numerous other human rights, and violated the Constitution's commitment to open and transparent government.
“The bill comprehensively protects the State Security Agency from public scrutiny because it allows the agency itself to decide what it wishes to be kept secret,” Brislin said.
Any illegal activity by the agency could, therefore, easily be hidden from scrutiny and from the legal process.
Furthermore, the bill gave the Minister of State Security too much power and allowed the minister to extend the right to classify information to virtually any state body, thereby increasing the chance that illegal activities would be hidden in the name of state security.
Although various changes had been made to the bill since it was first proposed, a major weakness was that no provisions had been made for a public interest defence and for the disclosure of supposedly secret information about which the public had a right to know.
Moreover, severe punitive action could be taken against whistleblowers and journalists if they were in possession of, or published material, deemed classified information, even if it was within the public's interest to know about it.
Existing legislation which protected whistleblowers was not nearly sufficiently strong to withstand the PSIB.
Many religious leaders and NGO's, such as the Right2Know campaign, had protested against the bill.
“As the Catholic Church in Cape Town, we have the duty to continue opposing this bill, not only as members of civil society, but also because there is a moral imperative to serve the common good.
“This bill does not serve the interests of the nation and can be used to damage our democracy and lead us on the road, once again, to a security state,” Brislin said.
The bill was approved by the National Assembly in November and sent to the NCOP for concurrence.
The NCOP has set up a special ad hoc committee to deal with the bill and is planning further public hearings in various provinces.
The hearings are to start in February and the committee has to report to the council by April 8. – Sapa