Cape Town-101022-Siyabonga Cwele, National Minister for State Security, briefs the media about the Protection of Information Bill. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele has denied stifling debate on the Protection of State Information Bill.

Speaking during an unrelated debate in the National Assembly on Thursday, Cwele accused opposition parties of “misleading” Parliament by suggesting that his department was interfering in the work of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) ad hoc committee processing the controversial draft law.

State security officials, appearing before the committee on Tuesday, rejected all the changes proposed by MPs (including those by ANC MPs) during a watershed committee meeting on May 10. The ANC’s proposals included, among other things, that the definition of national security be narrowed, that limited legal protection be offered to whistleblowers who reveal classified information that exposes criminality, and to remove all minimum sentences prescribed in the current version of the bill.

The ANC’s suggested changes would significantly alter the bill – and would achieve the greatest level of consensus among political parties since the bill was brought to Parliament in 2010. But during Tuesday’s briefing, acting state security director-general Dennis Dlomo rejected all 16 changes, prompting DA MP Alf Lees to quip “that makes it 16 for the department, nil for the committee”.

And although the ANC’s proposal for limited whistleblower protection stops short of the public interest defence demanded by civil society groups, Dlomo also rejected this idea out of hand, saying “it is too risky to leave it up to members of the public to decide what is in the public interest”.

Immediately after the state security briefing on Tuesday, the ANC’s chief whip in the NCOP, Nosipho Ntwanambi, asked for more time to “caucus” with her party colleagues on the implications of the departmental briefing. The committee then cancelled all meetings planned for this week, and next – and resolved to seek an extension to its lifespan, which is to expire on June 21.

This move has raised fears that the ANC is preparing to row back from its May 10 position – and has sparked suggestions from opposition parties that Cwele and his officials have put pressure on ANC MPs to abandon their proposed amendments.

On Tuesday, Lees accused the State Security Department of interfering in the committee’s work and undertook to ask Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe – as leader of government business in Parliament – to “intervene in the continuing battle between the Department of State Security and Parliament on the Secrecy Bill”.

“Government needs to understand that once legislation is in Parliament, it needs to be dealt with in Parliament. Attempts by the (department to interfere) seriously undermine the… separation of powers between the executive and the legislature,” he said.

But Cwele pointed out on Thursday that his department had been invited by the committee to respond – clause by clause – to the amendments proposed at the May 10 meeting. Cwele said the committee had “concluded that it would consider all our inputs” and accused Cope “and its new mother, the DA” of agreeing to positions inside the committee only to “run outside and say something else”.

This comes after Cope MP Dennis Bloem had also criticised the State Security Department’s briefing.

Dlomo rejected proposals for scrapping minimum sentences by saying those contained in the bill – which range between three and 15 years – were in line with international norms and standards. And instead of narrowing the definition of what constitutes “national security” – a crucial element of the bill, as it would affect all other aspects of the law – Dlomo urged MPs to expand the definition.

He argued that “there is no universal or single definition of the concept of national security” and that “there is a need to retain flexibility (in the definition) to ensure that a country may adapt to changing circumstances”.

He also dismissed concerns about an overly broad definition of national security. He said the current definition expressly excluded “lawful political activity, advocacy, protest or dissent” from being limited or criminalised in the name of “national security”.

Dlomo also rejected proposals to exclude “economic, scientific or technological” information from the categories requiring classification.

“A nation that is economically insecure is subject to external influences and manipulation,” he argued.

Political Bureau