Info Bill heading for delay

Rights activists were mobilising to unleash a fresh wave of protests against the Protection of Information Bill.

Rights activists were mobilising to unleash a fresh wave of protests against the Protection of Information Bill.

Published Oct 31, 2010


The contentious Protection of Information Bill is heading for a redraft to narrow its scope, but the new version will not see the light this year, MPs said on Friday.

Parliament's ad hoc committee processing the bill agreed to take as a starting point for a new draft, proposals by State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele to remove two highly-contested clauses.

“The minister of course does not have the power to amend the bill, but I would suggest that we use some of his concessions as a starting point for a new draft,” committee chairman Cecil Burgess said.

Cwele last month responded to a national outcry over the draft act by saying he favoured dropping the nebulous notion of “national interest” as cause for classification, as well as a clause allowing for the classification of commercial information.

Several other points of contention remain, but a statement by ANC stalwart Vytjie Mentor on Friday suggested the ruling party could be open to further persuasion on the draft act. This was also suggested by National Planning Commission member Joel Netshitenze in an interview in London this week.

Mentor told fellow MPs they should ensure that the bill is not used to conceal corruption and silence the media Ä two of the main criticisms raised in public submissions by rights activists, the legal fraternity and the press.

Nor should classification be indefinite, or allowed to undermine South Africans' constitutional rights, she said.

“We will also have to address the concern of what will be the impact of this bill on the life of ordinary South Africans, and in various fields of life, like in the sciences, in print media, people who write, etc.

“Those should be the key things we should bear in mind in the final stages of this bill... we do have a responsibility to allay those fears that are out there.”

Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said using Cwele's suggested changes was as good a starting point as any other, but argued that the ambit of the bill needed to be cut to the bone.

“What the minister said is academic. It is we who decide what goes into the bill for classification... As far as I am concerned, we can delete vast sections here.”

Smuts suggested that MPs also excise clauses calling for the protection of valuable information and personal information.

The latter is the ambit of the new Protection of Personal Information Bill, which is also still on the drawing board, but Cwele has argued that it should be included here as well to protect people from crimes such as identity theft.

Smuts criticised Cwele's understanding of the Constitution as lacking, and said MPs must make clear that “you only infringe on people's rights to receive and impart information when it is necessary for the sake of security”.

Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini said lawmakers should proceed with the greatest caution because the balance between human rights and security dictates had “become the issue of the century”.

“I will not be happy if we just make it constitutional... The matter we are dealing with is the soft underbelly of the Constitution... we need to go no farther than look at what happened in the United States, Canada and the UK... how weak the Constitution has become when dealing with security issues,” he said.

Oriani-Ambrosini urged MPs to reconsider one area in which Cwele remains recalcitrant Ä the inclusion of a public interest defence clause.

It would allow whistle-blowers and journalists who publish secret information under pain of a maximum jail sentence of 25

years, to argue that they did so in the public interest.

“And it is not about the media, it is about we, the people. What is important to me is to have an affirmative defence against the erroneous classification of information. Otherwise you can classify a grocery list,” he said. - Sapa

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