Govt defends need for information Bill

The government will slightly narrow the scope of the Protection of Information Bill but otherwise preserve the contentious piece of legislation, State Intelligence Minister Siyabonga Cwele said on Friday.

This was to protect South Africa against an onslaught of espionage, both political and commercial, he said.

The state accepted criticism that the notion of classifying information in the “national interest” was too wide, and the term would therefore be removed from the legislation, Cwele told members of Parliament’s ad hoc portfolio committee on the Bill.

But the minister rejected calls to introduce the public-interest defence into the Bill—which would allow whistle-blowers and members of the media to argue that they had made public classified information for the greater good.

Cwele said citizens were free to use this as an argument to apply to be given access to state secrets, but not as a defence once the information had been leaked.

The state insisted on the need for prison sentences of up to 15 years for publishing secret material as it would serve as a “deterrent to unauthorised disclosure”, he said.

It would, however, ask lawmakers to introduce similarly harsh sentences for state officials who abused the classification system.

Cwele rejected repeated criticism that this, along with other aspects of the Bill, constituted a grave attack on media freedom and would mark a return to apartheid-era repression.

“The ruling party would be the last to want to revert to the dark old days of apartheid, especially because the pains, the strokes of the harshness of that period and the inhumanity with which we and our people were despised are still fresh in our psyche.”

Spies and information peddlers
He depicted South Africa as a country riddled with spies and information-peddlers who sought to destabilise democracy, undermine national food security and steal valuable commercial information.

“Some of their collection targets include profiles of senior government leaders, such as the president, the deputy president, ministers and deputy ministers and the leadership of the ruling and opposition parties.

These foreign intelligence agents sought to “unduly influence the evolution of politics and future plans of South Africa”, he added.

Cwele dismissed protest from the Democratic Alliance that his claims smacked of paranoia dating from the Mbeki era.

“There is no political paranoia. We are talking about political reality,” he countered.

Baseless rumours of political plots have already done severe damage, the minister said, citing the Browse Mole report as an example.

“Consequently these peddled claims have caused untold disruptions and divisions within the government system, ruling party and its allies and have negatively affected the project of democratisation of the country.”—Sapa

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