Cape Town-101022-Siyabonga Cwele, National Minister for State Security, flanked by Dennis Dlomo, his DDG, at a media briefing about the Protection of Information Bill. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

State security officials emerged with egg-speckled faces from Parliament this week after presenting MPs with an outdated and seemingly pointless briefing on the Protection of State Information Bill – and were sent back to Pretoria to prepare for a rerun next week.

An ad hoc committee of the National Council of Provinces which is processing the controversial bill – sponsored by the Department of State Security – had invited officials to respond to changes proposed by MPs earlier.

But instead of commenting on these changes – some of which would significantly alter the proposed law – acting director-general Dennis Dlomo made a presentation in which he responded only to submissions from civil society groups dating back to April.

Dlomo appeared to be unaware of – or simply ignored – the fact that MPs had since taken some of these submissions on board by agreeing to several new changes to the bill. And while committee chairman Raseriti Tau (ANC) was diplomatic in his reaction to the briefing – thanking officials for making the long (taxpayer-funded) trip from Pretoria to Cape Town – opposition parties were less kind.

Key among the recent changes is a clause, proposed by ANC MPs at the May 10 meeting, to protect the disclosure of information that was wrongly classified to hide “an unlawful act or omission, incompetence, inefficiency or administrative error” – or to avoid “embarrassment, scrutiny or criticism”.

Organisations such as the Right2Know (R2K) campaign, which has actively opposed the bill from the start, welcomed the ANC’s suggestion as a “small step in the right direction”.

In his presentation on Wednesday, Dlomo once again urged MPs to ignore civil society’s calls for a public interest defence. Such a clause, he said, would “undermine the rule of law”.

“The requirement of the rule of law and the duty it imposes on all citizens, including the media, is the duty to respect classification decisions until they are set aside. It does not countenance the principle of being an adjudicator in one’s own cause, as implied by a public interest defence. This would give everyone the right to act as judge and jury,” he argued.

Responding to Dlomo’s criticism of a public interest defence, R2K co-ordinator Murray Hunter said a “public interest defence is not a cloak for the malevolent”.

“We are asking that genuine disclosure of classified information in the public interest be protected, from civil servants, agency employees to journalists, readers, researchers and community activists. (State security officials) don’t seem to appreciate the real deterrent effect that will remain even if a public interest defence is included. People who use such a defence will still be taking an extraordinary risk when blowing the whistle,” he noted.

The DA responded by asking why the department would argue against amendments which propose that journalists and whistleblowers be protected from prosecution if they reveal information which discloses criminal activity. “The department surely does not want to create the impression that it wishes to protect alleged criminals,” said DA MP and committee member Alf Lees.

State security officials have now been instructed to return and respond to the changes proposed by MPs on May 10. - Pretoria News Weekend