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State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele on Thursday said his call to reverse changes to the Protection of State Information Bill was a bid to save it from being found unconstitutional.
“I commended the efforts which are being done by the NCOP (National Council of Provinces) but it is also my responsibility to highlight the areas which may be problematic, while they are making those amendments,” Cwele told the National Assembly.
“We are not forcing the members of the committee, but we are highlighting those issues which may be unconstitutional because it is our responsibility that we should pass a constitutionally sound legislation but also, equally, implementable legislation.”
The minister responded to an accusation by Cope's chief whip, Juli Killian, who said he was inappropriately placing executive pressure on the legislature to make “draconian” changes to the bill.
Cwele denied this, and said he had briefed the committee on invitation.
Opposition members of the National Council of Provinces committee finalising the bill had objected to the minister's appearance on Wednesday where he objected to recent, widely welcomed concessions by the ruling party.
Cwele notably called on MPs to reintroduce a five-year prison term for disclosing classified information as well as a clause that would make the new official secrets legislation trump the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).
Ironically, the ANC agreed to scrap clause 1 (4) after rights groups and legal experts warned that it was highly problematic and potentially unconstitutional because it sought to limit the right to state information guaranteed under PAIA.
Cwele also urged MPs to lower the threshold of proof imposed by the bill, arguing that the latest draft would make successful prosecution for revealing state secrets near impossible.
He further objected to a sub-clause that sought to widen protection for whistleblowers.
Opposition parties and rights groups have said they were shocked at his hawskish submission to the committee.
Democratic Alliance MP Alf Lees said: “The proposals presented by the Minister, if agreed to by the ANC MPs, would in effect destroy all the hard work the Committee has done to ensure that this Bill protects freedom of the press and access to information.”
The bill has been extensively rewritten in the past two-and-a-half years since it was introduced by Cwele and condemned by critics, including Cosatu, as an attempt to reintroduce apartheid-era state secrecy.
Expectations that it would be passed by year's end dimmed this week when the committee's deadline to report to the NCOP was extended to the end of November.
It will then have to be referred back to the National Assembly, which passed an earlier draft a year ago. - Sapa