The proposed Protection of State Information Bill is one step closer to becoming a law as the Parliament committee processing the Bill finalised its work on Tuesday.
The ad hoc committee, which has been working on the Bill for the past year, adopted the final report on Tuesday morning, which means no further changes can be made to the Bill in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).
It will now be debated by the council on Thursday November 29, before being sent back to the National Assembly for further consideration. The assembly can either accept or reject the NCOP recommendations.
The adoption of the final report, which is supposed to contain all the amendments agreed to by the committee and express the views of those that objected where there are no agreements, was not without controversy.
Opposition parties walked out in protest shortly after receiving the report, arguing that they hadn’t had enough time to study it to see if accurately reflected the changes agreed on by the committee.
This was after committee chairperson Raseriti Tau refused their request to postpone the meeting, but instead offered them 15 minutes to study the 22-page report.
The adoption of the report was the only item of the meeting’s agenda.
The ANC went ahead with voting and later adopting the report in their absence.
The Bill, which seeks to regulate the classification of state information, was referred to the NCOP for concurrence in November 2011. This was after a majority of MPs in the National Assembly voted in its favour amid protests from civil society and the media inside and outside Parliament on that day.
In a statement Tau said processing the Bill was "one of the most elaborate public consultation processes" in the South African Parliament.
"In a period of almost 11 months, the committee convened over 40 committee meetings and public hearings.
"In the period of the processing of the Info Bill, the committee made a total of over 800 changes to the Bill."
Tau said opposition to the Bill was largely due to misconception that it does not have a public interest defence clause for those seeking to expose wrong-doing, especially whistle-blowers and the media and that the Bill will be used to cover up corruption and information about tenders.
He said the processing of the Bill was characterised by half-truths, distorted conflations and mischievous political deportment, especially by those who remain fiercely opposed to it.
"Surely, after such an elaborate public consultation process and thorough amendment to address the challenges and concerns raised about the info Bill, one would expect general support of the Bill," said Tau.
The Democratic Alliance's Alf Lees, who is a member of the ad hoc committee, said by not postponing the meeting, the ANC ignored the voices and opinions of the opposition, which is becoming a growing trend in Parliament.
Lees said the DA remained opposed to many aspects of the Bill. "The ANC continues to misrepresent the impact of the secrecy Bill and to fudge the very serious threat that the Bill poses to freedom of expression and access to information."
"We still believe that core provisions in the Bill will close down the democratic space, give too many state institutions the right to classify information and fail to provide sufficient protection for whistle-blowers," said Lees.
Right2Know coordinator Murray Hunter acknowledged the "many important amendments" to the Bill over the past year, but added, "Despite the changes, it stopped short of creating a law that is just and constitutional".
"If the Bill passes in this current form, a Constitutional Court challenge is inevitable," said Hunter.