Civil society takes up fight against info Bill

Civil society organisations are willing to take the fight over the proposed Protection of Information Bill, currently before Parliament, all the way to the Constitutional Court should the Bill be passed in its current form.

Speaking at the launch of the Right2Know campaign on Tuesday, Idasa’s (Institute for Democracy in South Africa) Judith February, a member of the campaign’s working group, said that should the Bill become law in its current form it would be a “slight on our Constitution”.

The Right2Know campaign was unveiled at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, and encompasses more than 180 organisations and professional bodies, as well as prominent individuals, opposed to the Protection of Information Bill, or “Secrets Bill” as it is known.

“We have the critical mass of support to take it to the Constitutional Court if needs be,” she said.

The Bill aims to create a new framework of classification for state information. However, the campaigners argue the Bill extends the veil of secrecy in a manner reminiscent of apartheid-era secrecy legislation.

The organisations steering Right2Know include Idasa, the Institute for Security Studies, the South African History Archives, the South African National Editors’ Forum, the Freedom of Expression Institute and the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane).

Bodies such as the Black Sash and the Treatment Action Campaign have also thrown their weight behind the campaign.

Prominent public figures
In addition, more than 400 individuals, including prominent public figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, author Nadine Gordimer and former minister of intelligence Kadar Asmal, have also declared their support for the Right2Know campaign.

Further backing has come from international bodies such as Global Witness, Access Info Europe, the African Information Centre and Transparency International.

Allison Tilley of the Open Democracy Advice Centre, another member of the campaign’s working group, said while it did not believe that the Bill would be passed in its current form, it was “ready and able” to go to the Constitutional Court if need be.

The campaign highlighted major problems with the Bill as it currently stands, including: the power of any state agency, government department, parastatal and even municipality to classify public information as secret; the extent to which even ordinary information to do with service delivery can potentially be classified; the power to classify commercial information, making it difficult to hold business and government to account for inefficiency and corruption; the threat of prosecution of anyone involved in the “unauthorised” handling of classified information.

It demanded that amendments be made to the Bill, including limiting secrecy to state bodies such as the police, defence and intelligence agencies; limiting secrecy to strictly defined “national security” matters; and excluding commercial information from such protection.

Tilley said that the Bill could follow two paths going forward—it could be withdrawn and returned to the Department of State Security for review, or it could continue through Parliament’s more transparent processes.

Should the document be returned to the department, however, Tilley warned that it would have to follow a process that allowed for the open and transparent interaction with the public and stakeholders.

During the week of October 19, a public awareness week will be launched that will include a public march to Parliament to coincide with the announcement of the mid-term budget.

Website: www.r2k.org.za

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