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Pretoria - Considerations about a public interest defence have been incorporated into the Protection of State Information Bill, a government official said on Wednesday.
“This argument that the public interest has not been taken into consideration is incorrect,” newly-appointed co-ordinator of intelligence in the National Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee Dennis Dlomo said in Pretoria.
“We have said in the Protection of State Information Bill, the lifeblood, the oxygen that drives our democracy is the free flow of information,” he said during a discussion following the third annual Percy Qoboza memorial lecture.
“It (the bill) says if anybody has got access to information that has not been correctly classified, when the penalty is made, there is a very clear exclusion of... people who leak information which pertains to wrongdoing and corruption,” he said.
“Those are elements of public interest defence that are acknowledged in the Protection of State Information Bill. The judgement is not left to bureaucrats or politicians, as the argument goes, it is left to the courts.”
Dlomo said sections of society opposed to the contentious bill were basing their arguments on older versions of the bill.
Delivering the Percy Qoboza lecture earlier, former press ombudsman and director of the Press Council Joe Thloloe said there would still be space for press freedom, even when the bill became law.
“Is the Protection of State Information Bill a threat, or does it mean the end of media freedom as we know it now? The answer is no. We have a Constitution that protects us.
“In this one round in Parliament we still have lots of fighting space until we get to the Constitutional Court.”
He said media industry roleplayers and many South Africans merely wanted a public interest defence clause included in the bill.
“We are asking for one small item in the bill, that there should be a public interest defence built into the bill. We believe that the onus to prove the public interest will be on the person claiming that he did whatever he did because of the public interest.
“That decision, on whether it is in the public interest, should be taken by the courts, not by politicians, not by bureaucrats. That is all we are asking for and we find it difficult to understand why that wasn't inserted when the bill was sent back to Parliament,” said Thloloe.
The Qoboza memorial lecture is held in conjunction with the University of South Africa. Qoboza was a South African journalist, author, and outspoken critic of the apartheid government.
He was detained without charge while editor of The World and Weekend World. Later he served as editor of The Post and Sunday Post, and City Press.
Earlier this month, lobby groups said Parliament's plan to review the bill in two days made a mockery of its duty to correct the highly contentious draft law.
The Right2Know campaign said President Jacob Zuma had rightly referred the bill back to the National Assembly on advice that it was unconstitutional. Opposition parties and activists however said the wording of Zuma's letter to Parliament, outlining what changes he wanted made, was too vague. They had urged him to say whether MPs had the authority to undertake a comprehensive redraft or merely focus on two sections.
Critics' hopes for a comprehensive overhaul dimmed last week when Parliament scheduled the ad hoc committee handling the review to meet on Wednesday, and to finalise its report on the bill on Thursday.
Critics said it still created the spectre of excessive state secrecy reminiscent of the apartheid era.
The two clauses Zuma mentioned when he announced his decision contain technical errors that, if corrected this week, were unlikely to alter the bill's content and allay those concerns.