Will Parliament do justice to Info Bill?

Senior ANC parliamentarians, most critical of the Protection of Information Bill currently before Parliament, are among the committee members who have failed to attend the public hearings on the controversial legislation.

They include MP Vytjie Mentor and Annelize Van Wyk, who, when initial briefings were given to the ad-hoc committee on the Protection of Information Bill, were most critical of the effects that Bill would have on the ability of parliamentarians to do their work, as well as the freedom of ordinary South Africans.

The proposed legislation will govern how the state classifies its information and is being violently opposed by civil society and the media, who view a number of its provisions as “draconian”.

Questions on Parliament’s oversight
This week, think tank Idasa complained to the speaker of Parliament Max Sisulu that the failure of a number of committee members to appear at the hearings could “pose serious questions about Parliament’s oversight of the processing of this piece of legislation”.

Idasa said in its letter that it was “concerned at the possible implications of their absence, both procedurally, as well as the impact this may have on substantive issues of law and process”.

“We were disappointed with the tone of the hearings and the shallow questioning, as well as that many presenters’ concerns regarding the subordination of the promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA), the Protected Disclosures Act, 2000 (PDA) and the Constitution to this legislation were not addressed,” it said.

“In view of the far-reaching implications of the Bill, Idasa is concerned that, in these circumstances, Parliament will be unable to do justice to its responsibilities.”

Other absent parliamentarians include Johnny De Lange (ANC), Mbhazima Shilowa (Cope), and Mario Oriani-Ambrosini (IFP).

Van Wyk told the Mail & Guardian however that she did not attend the hearings because she was attending oversight visits for her portfolio committee on police, her primary committee.

‘Nobody has said we will accept this Bill as it is’
During a briefing by the State Security Agency held earlier this year year, Van Wyk questioned the problems the Bill would create for parliamentary committees performing their oversight role, especially if they required information on irregularities.

“These are something we should not ignore and provisions must be made to allow Parliament to carry out its work … Nobody has said we will accept this Bill as it is.”

Similarly, Vytjie Mentor in a briefing by the state security ministry noted her concern that the Bill gave great powers to state organs without adequate checks and balances to this power.

Mentor however told the M&G that she had been booked off on sick leave until the September 20 and had not been at Parliament.

“But I have a keen interest to go back. This is an important Bill,” she said.

She said her views remained the same as those recorded in earlier briefings.

“I believe there should be secrecy of state information, but [this] should be balanced with constitutional rights.”

Oriani-Ambrosini told the M&G that he had not been able to attend the public hearings due to simultaneous meetings in Parliament.

But he did say that he found the Bill deeply problematic and he intended to interrogate it in future deliberations.

“It carries unnecessary imbalances between freedom and state security,” he said.

“And the balance has been struck on the side of state security, not freedom.”

De Lange and Shilowa did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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