The Protection of State Information Bill could render the arms deal commission toothless, sabotaging attempts to unearth the truth behind the R70 billion arms contracts.

In gazetted calls for written submissions, commissioners assured anonymity of those who would provide “confidential, classified or secret” material, saying such persons could elect to use fake initials to protect their identities.

The final report to be submitted to President Jacob Zuma would have the same initials used in all records, transcripts or the hearing and any reports of the commission.

But should the government decide to go ahead and pass the Protection of State Information Bill on May 17 – commissioners will face a difficult task of gathering information that could lift a veil on the controversial arms contracts. They could themselves face jail should they obtain classified information and conceal identities of those who divulged such information.

According to the bill, which has unsettled even Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, a person who “unlawfully communicate(s), deliver(s) or make(s) available State information classified top secret”, knowing that such information would “directly or indirectly prejudice the state”, could be sentenced to up to 15 years in jail.

And anyone who “harbours or conceals a person” who has contravened provisions of the bill faces a sentence of five to 10 years.

Commission spokesman William Baloyi said on Thursday he was not at liberty to discuss a bill that had not been passed, adding that when such a time arrived, the commission’s “legal advisers would look at it”.

Also revealed in the 11-page gazette signed by commission chair Judge Willie Seriti, which was published on Wednesday, was how the commission would operate in terms of information regulation.

“The commission may, by order or notice, restrict or prohibit the publishing or broadcast of any of its proceedings if the commission has reason to believe that the order or notice is necessary for the effective and efficient fulfilment of the commission’s terms of reference and would make available to the commission evidence that would otherwise not be available,” said commissioners.

It is the president’s discretion to make public contents of the report once commissioners report to him in September next year.

With a budget of R40 million, the commission is expected to start sifting through documents to be submitted to it by July 30, then resume hearings from November. This will leave commissioners with only 10 months to listen to the oral submissions and submit a report.

Chaired by Judge Seriti, Zuma announced the commission in September last year, averting a possible embarrassing episode in which the Constitutional Court could have forced his government to establish the commission following arms deal crusader Terry Crawford-Browne’s long-standing battle to get him to investigate the contracts.

Commissioners set to work with Judge Seriti are Judge Francis Legodi and Judge Hendrick Thekiso Musi.

Procurement for the venue for the hearings has not yet been finalised and Justice spokesman Tlali Tlali would not indicate why the department is seeking a venue around Pretoria when the minister had indicated the venue would be in Joburg.

The Star