Finalisation of the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Bill may stand over to the new year after it was adopted with minor amendments by NCOP. Picture: Chantall Presence/ANA

Parliament - Finalisation of the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Bill, which has been red-flagged by information rights groups, may stand over to the new year after it was adopted with minor amendments by the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). 

The bill has to return to the National Assembly because of the changes in the draft adopted by the NCOP late on Tuesday, MPs confirmed on Wednesday.

However, it did not make it onto the order paper for Wednesday. The house rises for its summer recess on Thursday.

The passage of the bill, which will replace the apartheid-era National Key Points Act, was not opposed by the opposition but information and media rights activists warned that it would have a chilling impact on investigative reporting and whistle-blowing.

It gives the police minister the discretion to declare certain installations critical infrastructure and prescribes how these are protected in the interest of national security. 

It imposes prison sentences ranging from three to 20 years for breaches.

Critics have called for the inclusion of a public interest defence that whistle-blowers and media, who publish classified information to expose wrongdoing, can invoke if charged in terms of the legislation.

They argued that like the National Key Points Act, which was famously invoked to cover up the lavish upgrades at former president Jacob Zuma's Nkandla home, its successor could be used to restrict critical media reporting.

Murray Hunter, the national coordinator of the Right 2 Know Campaign, drew a parallel with the shelved Protection of State Information Bill - the so-called "Secrecy Bill", where activists lobbied for years for the inclusion of a public interest defence. 

The final version of that draft law eventually gave some protection to those who exposed wrongdoing in the public interest, but still met with the threat of legal challenge because of the limited circumstances in which these safeguards would apply.

"The NCOP has missed a massive opportunity not to repeat the mistakes it made with the Secrecy Bill, when they approved a bill so deeply problematic that it's gone unsigned for five years," Hunter said.

Karabo Rajuili from the AmaBhungane investigative journalism unit said it was disappointing that lawmakers failed to heed the need for a legal defence for those who risked prison to expose not only wrongdoing but threats to public safety or to the environment.

"By definition, critical infrastructure sites can be areas of security concern, such as nuclear sites, where the need can arise to inform the public of an imminent threat."

It was essential that in such cases information was aired, she said, also to enable Parliament to perform proper oversight. 

Rajiuli said MPs could have used the drafting of the bill to strike a legislative balance between the legitimate need to keep high-risk areas safe and the need for transparency, because it would inform how they drafted future security and information laws.

African News Agency (ANA)