In a dramatic turn of events, ANC MP Luwellyn Landers made the proposals for changing the bill at a meeting of the ad hoc committee dealing with the legislation in Parliament. Photo: Jason Boud

The ANC has backed off on the controversial Protection of Information Bill – but the ruling party still refuses to include a clause protecting journalists and whistleblowers who release or publish classified information in the public interest.

The ANC on Friday proposed significant concessions on the proposed law which seeks to regulate the classification of state secrets and which has been strongly opposed by civil rights groups, Cosatu, senior media figures and even ANC veteran politicians because of the threat the bill posed to the free flow of information.

In a dramatic turn of events, ANC MP Luwellyn Landers made the proposals for changing the bill at a meeting of the ad hoc committee dealing with the legislation in Parliament on Friday.

But the ANC has still not moved on the calls for the inclusion of a public interest defence clause and Landers told journalists this was not on the table. Last month, the ANC rejected inclusion of this clause, with committee chairman Cecil Burgess (ANC) saying there was no international best practice for it.

The key concessions made yesterday are:

l Narrowing the scope of the bill to apply only to security and intelligence services, with a clause allowing other organs of state to apply for inclusion if necessary.

l Allowing for a retired judge to review disputed classification of information.

l Removing the current minimum jail sentences that apply without the option of a fine for the disclosure of classified information, except where espionage is concerned

After the meeting, Landers said that over several weeks, during which opposition to the bill had intensified, senior ANC members had “been coming to us expressing their concern, simply saying: ‘What the hell are you arguing?’

“We want to change the culture of secrecy. In considering the provisions of this bill, we need to ensure that decisions taken by state departments and civil servants must be justifiable and they must be accountable.”

Landers said they were concerned about the possible abuse of the bill to hide corrupt activities.

“So we must do everything possible to ensure that we put provisions in the bill that will not only stringently penalise any such attempt but methods that could be used to prevent that,” he said.

Yesterday, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, who introduced the first draft of the bill in 2008, congratulated the ANC on its change of heart, although he was concerned about the continued exclusion of a public interest defence. “This should be seen as a very positive development,” said Kasrils.

He said it showed the ANC was sensitive to public concerns and public interest. “It’s a good sign of democratic practice.

“Given the fact that they’ve moved on these points, I hope they’d take the same approach to the public interest defence. I feel very strongly around the public interest defence,” Kasrils said.

Early this month, Kasrils wrote an open letter warning that the rush by the ad hoc committee processing the bill to complete it could lead to “huge problems and unnecessary tensions”.

This was when the committee began clause-by-clause voting on the revised version and appeared to be ramming the bill through without trying to reach consensus a week after the local government elections.

On the contents of the bill, Kasrils wrote: “I hate to envisage the unforeseen consequences. It will certainly undermine public trust in the intelligence and security services at a time when confidence needs to be built.

“All agree that the outdated 1982 (Protection of Information) Act must be repealed and that a democratic state has the need to protect sensitive state secrets. To this end, it is noteworthy that the bill recognises the harm of excessive secrecy,” he said. - Weekend Argus