Pretoria - President Jacob Zuma has backed off from signing the controversial secrecy bill into law, saying it is “irrational” and does not pass constitutional muster.
The Protection of State Information Bill was passed by Parliament earlier this year and was referred to Zuma to be signed into law.
The partial climbdown by Zuma on Thursday was seen as a morale-boosting victory for a coalition of media, civil society and opposition parties that had vehemently opposed the bill.
While the Right2Know Campaign and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) welcomed Zuma’s decision to refer the bill back to MPs, they said concerns remained.
Late on Thursday, party chief whips in the National Assembly were locked in consultation meetings aimed at establishing an ad hoc committee to reconsider the bill.
MPs had adopted the bill on April 25 with 189 votes in favour, 74 against and one abstention.
After receiving a letter from Zuma informing him that he had reservations about the constitutionality of two clauses, National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu referred the bill back to MPs in terms of Section 79 (1) of the constitution.
The section allows the president to send a bill back to Parliament for reconsideration.
“The whips are consulting on the establishment of an ad hoc committee for consideration of the president’s reservations. Once the committee has been established, the bill, together with the president’s reservations, will be referred to it for consideration and a report in terms of the Joint Rules of Parliament,” Sisulu said.
Right2Know Campaign spokesman Murray Hunter said Zuma’s move was an important victory for social justice and accountability.
“Parliament must now take up the baton and remove every draconian measure from the bill,” he said.
He called on MPs to “redeem” themselves by redrafting the bill.
Sanef chairman Mpumelelo Mkhabela said the forum continued to be concerned because the bill “criminalises the possession and dissemination of classified state information even if such information is in the public interest”.
“Sanef has consistently argued for the inclusion of a public interest defence clause to protect journalists and whistle-blowers. Sanef is concerned about the provisions that allow for broad classification of information, including that which has nothing to do with security of the state,” Mkhabela said.
The delegating of authority to “undefined state officials” to classify information was also worrying.
Zuma said the bill was incoherent.
“I have referred the bill to the National Assembly for reconsideration insofar as sections of the bill, in particular Sections 42 and 45, lack meaning and coherence, consequently are irrational and accordingly are unconstitutional,” he told the press at Parliament.
Section 42 refers to the “improper classification” of information and focuses on any person who knowingly classifies information “to achieve any purpose ulterior to this act, including the classification of information in order to conceal breaches of the law”.
Section 45 relates to the written authority required from the national director of public prosecutions before criminal charges carrying a penalty of imprisonment of five years or more may be instituted.
DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and ANC chief whip Stone Sizani, as well as IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, welcomed Zuma’s decision.
“This follows the DA’s petition in accordance with Section 79 of the constitution. Once published, the DA will analyse these details and respond,” said Mazibuko.
Sizani said: “We are confident that the amendments would strengthen the bill.”
Oriani-Ambrosini, who has been absent from Parliament for health reasons, said he would sit on the bill’s ad hoc committee “to ensure our freedom of speech will not be curtailed”.