Demonstrators protest against the passing of the Protection of State Information Bill outside Parliament in Cape Town.

Cape Town - The National Assembly's approval of the Protection of State Information Bill on Tuesday has drawn widespread condemnation.

The House approved the bill by 229 votes to 107, with two abstentions, after a division called by the opposition.

Earlier, a Democratic Alliance motion to delay the vote failed.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) said the bill could impact negatively on basic human rights. The commission had a constitutional and legislative responsibility for the right of access to information.

The bill had to be aligned with the Promotion of Access to Information Act, to avoid moving back towards a culture of secrecy which had the potential to undermine democracy, it said.

The commission expressed concern over the impact of the bill on the rights of journalists and whistleblowers, who released information in the public interest and faced the prospect of lengthy imprisonment sentences in the absence of a public interest defence in the bill.

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) noted with “deep regret” the Assembly's decision.

“We call on President (Jacob) Zuma and the African National Congress to follow through on their pledge of a fully public and consultative process on this bill.”

A side effect of the bill was that it had seen a trend of national, provincial and local institutions tending towards a culture of secrecy, it said.

The Right2Know Campaign said it was disappointed that ANC MPs had accepted the bill.

“In doing so they have betrayed the principles of open government and transparency that the ANC once stood for.

“We have won the argument, if not this battle. The Right2Know Campaign will continue to challenge the secrecy bill up to the Constitutional Court,” it said.

The Helen Suzman Foundation also expressed outrage at the passing of the bill.

“This marks a low point in South Africa’s transition to democracy.

“It represents a significant step backwards in the long walk to freedom to which so many South Africans have devoted their lives,” it said.

The Constitution enshrined and protected the free flow of information between citizens, and from government to citizens.

This access to information was essential for accountable, transparent, and responsive government.

“This bill cannot credibly be described as in South Africa’s best interests. Instead, it is a case of political expediency triumphing over constitutional rights.”

It marked the beginning of policy being driven by a secretive and self-serving security cluster, the foundation said.

The United Association of South Africa (Uasa) said the bill's “steamrolling” through Parliament heralded nothing positive for South Africa's democracy.

The bill's approval spelled huge dangers for what was left of the already dwindling democracy in South Africa.

“It will become impossible to make informed decisions on, for instance, political matters like elections.

“If we are no longer informed about corruption and other wrongdoing by the state and politicians up to the highest positions in our government, how will it be possible to make an informed choice between parties?”

It would also serve as a major deterrent for whistle-blowers for fear of being prosecuted should they divulge sensitive information, Uasa said. - Sapa