Info Bill delay looms

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IOL pic dec5 cape info bill protesters Reuters File picture - A demonstrator protests against the passing of the Protection of State Information Bill outside Parliament in Cape Town.

The department of state security shot down ANC proposals to amend the Protection of State Information Bill on Tuesday, making further delays in finalising the bill certain.

Acting director general of state security Dennis Dlomo labelled most significant concessions proposed by the ruling party in May Ä in response to the sustained outcry over the bill Ä “cause for concern”.

This includes proposals to give greater protection to whistle-blowers and the media, by exempting those who reveal classified information to expose criminal wrongdoing from prosecution.

Dlomo said the Protected Disclosures Act already covers this eventuality - ignoring oft-stated concerns that it provides very limited protection, as it only applies to information gathered in the whistle-blower's workplace.

The department also stone-walled on opposition calls to reconcile the bill with the Promotion of Access to Information Act, instead of allowing it to trump the progressive law according to section 1(4), which experts deem plainly unconstitutional.

And it reiterated a flat refusal to countenance a public interest defence, to allow those prosecuted for revealing state secrets to argue in court that they did so for the greater good.

“It is too risky to leave it up to the members of the public to decide what is in the public interest,” Dlomo said.

He also dismissed the ANC's calls to scrap the remaining minimum sentences in the bill, and to reconsider penalties of up to 25 years in prison.

Human rights advocates, including George Bizos, have argued that these were exceptionally harsh and should be reconsidered.

“The periods of imprisonment are in line with international best practice, and in most instances pose a lesser sentence than those imposed in other democracies,” said Dlomo.

He said the department wished to seek further legal opinion on an ANC proposal to soften clause 49, a key concern for critics of the bill, who believe it would allow the state to draw a veil over the work of intelligence agents.

The ruling party last month suggested that only the leaking of information on intelligence matters that are classified be criminalised, whereas in the current version of the bill this applies to all state security matters.

Its proposals have been cautiously welcomed by critics of the bill, who have however demanded the party go further in protecting freedom of expression to make sure the legislation passes constitutional muster.

Democratic Alliance MP Alf Lees summed up the department's reaction to the amendments thus: “It seems it's 16 for the department, nil for the committee.”

Members of all parties on the National Council of Provinces' ad hoc committee handling the bill then argued they would need more than the 10 days remaining to their reporting deadline of June 22 to complete deliberations.

Chairman Raseriti Tau said he agreed in principal to seek an extension.

Human rights groups have said the apparent divergence between the department and ruling party lawmakers on the committee point to the split in top ANC echelons on the bill.

The bill has met with two years of sustained public opposition from media houses and rights groups. ANC ally Cosatu has vowed to challenge the bill unless it was significantly amended, after the ANC majority drove it through the National Assembly late last year. - Sapa


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