The eThekwini council will, this week, adopt a set of rules that will effectively ban the public and the media from accessing certain information.

The eThekwini council will, this week, adopt a set of rules that will effectively ban the public and the media from accessing certain information.

The Amendments to the Rules of Order will give powers to the Speaker and committee chairpersons to restrict the public’s and the media’s access to executive committee (Exco) meetings in cases where matters deemed sensitive are discussed.

According to the document, Exco may close its meetings to the public where:
* There may be disclosure of confidential information regarding any person to the public.
* Any investigation, report or internal audit report which is in the course of consideration could be compromised by its public disclosure.
* There may be disclosure of any trade secrets of the municipality or financial, business, scientific or technical information other than trade secrets which is likely to cause prejudice to the business or interests of the municipality.

Currently those matters involving the processes to hire senior management and those involving disciplinary cases against staff are held behind closed doors. 

Also, once the rules are adopted, any person present during a committee or council meeting will be barred from using any electronic device to communicate any information relating to a matter being discussed in the meeting. The rules further seek to bar members of the media from using any device to record the proceedings “without the necessary permission of the Speaker or chairperson of Exco”. 

However, journalists may take written notes.

Communication Rights Organiser at Right2Know, Biko Mutsaurwa, said the adoption of such rules would lead to lack of transparency and accountability and was likely to breed an environment in which corruption flourishes.

“It appears to me that these rules are against the spirit of the constitution of the Republic and that they might be in contradiction of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. Whilst I would need to consult our legal team on this, it looks like something we may want to challenge”.

He said such rules may be a threat to participatory democracy and media freedom. 
 
Yesterday DA councillor Sharon Hoosen asked why members of the executive committee were no longer receiving monthly reports on tenders that have been awarded by the city. 

Lawson Naidoo, a constitutional law expert, also believes the new rules are “far too restrictive and may be subject to a constitutional challenge”.

Naidoo said the constitution promotes an open, transparent and accountable system of government. Even the national assembly, he added, is expected to conduct its business in an open manner and may only restrict information under exceptional circumstances.

“Those exceptional circumstances may include things like matters of national security because that type of information should not be in the public domain, things like trade secrets do not fall within that category”.

The DA and the IFP had sent some comments on some of the amendments, with the latter saying that banning the recording of meetings may prejudice electronic media. 

The DA said there was no reason why meetings of the council cannot be recorded or filmed as this was in the public interest. The DA yesterday tried to block the adoption of the regulations, saying more time was needed to discuss these. 

“Some of these clauses won’t even pass the constitutional test”. However, this was dismissed by ANC members of the committee. 

Speaker Lekgoa Mapena said by-laws had to be dealt with by council. He also pointed out that all parties had been given a chance to comment.

He challenged Mncwango to take the matter on review if he is not happy with it. 

“If you’ve got an issue with the by-law you take it on review...The best arbiter is the court…,” Mapena said.

He said other municipalities have the same clauses. 

“The mayoral committee of Cape Town does not meet with the media (present) it meets alone, then the spokesperson goes and informs the media of the decisions… even their documents are classified,” Mapena said.

Mncwango said there was already a veil of secrecy around many issues. “The municipality cannot hide behind clauses like financial and business information cannot be disclosed as if we are running a private company here. These are public funds,” he said 

The city of Cape Town uses the executive mayoral system and Mncwango said the meetings of the mayoral committee are open to the public.