Marchers demonstrate against the governments proposed Protection of Information Bill and media tribunal at the Durban City Hall. The marchers said the bill and tribunal were aimed at gagging the media and hiding government corruption. Picture: Marilyn Bernard.

Members of Parliament will be met with a new wave of protests when they reconvene this week to continue work on the controversial Protection of Information Bill, despite significant concessions by the ANC last month.

The special parliamentary committee processing the proposed law to regulate classification of state information will intensify its work, starting tomorrow.

According to the parliamentary programme released on Friday, the ad-hoc committee will start with a six-hour meeting tomorrow, and then there will be unprecedented eight-hour meetings for the rest of the week, including a meeting scheduled for Saturday.

The deadline to complete work on the bill is September 23.

While welcoming the ANC’s about-turn on some key issues, civil society coalition the Right2Know campaign wants to exert more pressure on the committee to address its concerns with the bill, hence “a new season of protests” will begin with a picket at Parliament tomorrow morning.

Right2Know national co-ordinator Murray Hunter said they were still frustrated and wanted their concerns to be addressed. Concerns remained about the definition of national security, exclusion of a public interest defence, increased powers for national security agencies and the matter of possession of classified material.

“It can’t be right that it would be a crime to publish information in the public interest,” said Hunter.

“This week is the moment (when we find out) how seriously we can take the concessions made by the ANC… whether civil society concerns will be addressed or whether it’s just crumbs on the table.”

During the last meeting of the committee, the ruling party made a significant about-turn, proposing that the scope of application of the bill, as it applied to the authority to classify information, be drastically reduced to apply only to security services.

The ANC also proposed that an opt-in clause be provided for in the bill which would allow organs of state or state entities to apply to be allowed to classify information after providing good reasons; that a retired judge be provided for in the appeals process; the minimum sentences provisions in the offences clause be removed, with the possible exception of the crime of espionage; and that the penalties and sanctions in the offences clause meet the test of proportionality.

At the time, the ANC said it believed the proposed changes to the bill would help meet the “difficult and competing demands of national security within a rights-based, constitutional democracy such as ours”.

It said that given the country’s history and the “often horrific experiences we have had with our security services”, and the constitution, “which enjoins us to recognise the injustices of our past”, the ANC wanted to change the culture of secrecy.

“The ANC believes decisions taken by state departments and civil servants must be both justifiable and able stand the test of accountability.”

While the proposals were welcomed at the time, last week acclaimed authors Andre Brink and Nadine Gordimer warned that the proposed concessions were token moves to silence rejection of the bill by media organisations, labour unions, writers and artists, and others in civil society.

They said in a statement that the bill, if passed into law, would inhibit freedom of expression and put an end to this basic right that had come at the end of apartheid through protection of human rights in the constitution. - Andisiwe Makinana