The so-called secrecy bill passed through the National Assembly yesterday amid assurances from the ANC that the powers to render matters secret would apply only to the military, intelligence and security services.
But the parliamentary and civil society opposition say there are lurking powers to suppress other state information, such as financial information relating to the parastatals or to a project like Nkandla, if it is deemed to be in the interest of protecting the security of the state.
Murray Hunter of the Right2Know campaign, who was present in the National Assembly visitors’ benches when the Protection of State Information Bill was passed by 190 to 75 with one abstention – from a UDM MP – noted that the state could extend the power to make information secret on these grounds.
“The secrecy bill could put a cloak around business relations with the state as [the legislation] can extend the power to classify [information] if good cause is shown,” said Hunter, whose organisation has been fighting the legislation for three years.
Intelligence Minister Siyabonga Cwele played down concerns that the bill was unconstitutional or that it gave him unfettered powers to render matters secret. It merely gave the state powers “to criminalise espionage and hostile activities” and attempts by some to reduce South Africa to “a banana republic”.
Powers to make information secret were restricted to the security, intelligence and military services, he reported.
Mark Weinberg, also of Right2Know, said the bill had only narrow protection for whistle-blowers and public advocates, not a full public interest defence, that excluded a range of matters in the public interest like “shady tendering practices or improper appointments within key state agencies”.
“This half measure fails to acknowledge the urgent need to address South Africa’s whistle-blower crisis, as well as the global abuse of national security laws to protect state interests against the security of citizens,” he said.
A whistle-blower, journalist or activist who disclosed a classified record “with the purpose of revealing corruption or other criminal activity might be prosecuted under the espionage offence not covered by the proposed public interest defence”, Weinberg said.
ANC MP Cecil Burgess noted that the bill focused on two types of state information for which it provided protection: valuable information and sensitive information. “Sensitive state information must be classified as either confidential, secret or top secret in order to protect it from unlawful disclosure,” Burgess said.
The leader of the opposition, Lindiwe Mazibuko, said: “Democracy cannot work when security exceeds its proper limits. The media cannot function when important information is suppressed. Bad governments thrive under the cloak of darkness. Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.”
But Burgess told MPs: “Let me warn the House that the… bill has the tendency to seriously affect the emotions and the thinking of reasonable people. They then start to behave incoherently and funny and they say strange things that are inconsistent with the behaviour of ordinary sane people. It is amazing to observe this transformation.”
The bill will now go to President Jacob Zuma for assent and signature.