The ANC intends wrapping up work on the Protection of Information Bill next week and put it to the vote in the National Assembly, though political parties remain at odds over key aspects of the new state secrets legislation.

“We should be finished by the end of next week,” Cecil Burgess, the chairman of the ad hoc committee drafting the bill, said yesterday.

“They {MPs} have had enough time to debate now. If they cannot reach consensus then we will put it to the vote. I have given them time, I have asked them to consult in the corridors and find each other. They cannot say they were not given time to put their point of view,” he told Sapa.

“The house will vote on this before the 15th of September.”

Impatience to finalise the fractious drafting process has been palpable in recent days, as political parties reached an agreement on narrowing the application of the bill, a move welcomed by activists and academics.

But yesterday they stumbled into a fresh disagreement which the opposition described as a major setback. It relates to the test to be applied for classifying information as confidential. MPs had agreed earlier that potential threats to national security would be the only grounds for keeping information secret. However, the additional grounds of a threat to security, without any further qualification, found itself into the latest draft.

The ANC’s Luwellyn Landers said it was the work of a senior advocate consulted by the opposition, but should stay in the bill.

“They put it in and we said okay. Now why should we take it out?” he asked.

The Democratic Alliance said it had the assurance of the advocate that the inclusion was a simple error, and retaining it would create the risk of over-classification.

“The concept is not only overly broad, but it is not clear. And because of that I think it once again raises the issue of constitutionality,” DA MP David Maynier said, adding that the issue was “one giant leap backwards”.

Earlier the ANC accepted additions to the definition of national security proposed by the DA, which further narrow down the concept by stating expressly that secrecy should be allowed only to counter threats clearly aimed at “undermining the constitutional order of the republic”.

African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart also warned the new development could have serious consequences.

“It would have a direct impact on classification levels and make a mockery of narrowing down the definition of national security.”

The biggest concern for opposition lawmakers, activists and trade unions however remained the absence in the bill of a public interest defence that would protect journalists and whistleblowers who publish secret information to expose corruption.

The ANC has said time and again it would not countenance such a provision.

Civil society groups are also wary of a clause that gives intelligence agents the power to classify anything deemed a state security matter. The opposition is expected to fight hard in the final days of deliberations to have it scrapped. - Sapa