/ 26 May 2011

Activists mobilise as ANC rolls back Info Bill progress

Rights campaigners on Thursday said they would mobilise poor communities in a revived campaign to prevent the ANC from ramming the Protection of Information Bill through Parliament.

The Right2Know campaign said a meeting on Tuesday in which ANC MPs used their majority to approve contentious clauses of the Bill by vote, had made it clear that the ANC was reneging on concessions to transparency made in recent months and remained bent on passing a regressive bill.

“The ANC position on the Secrecy Bill has hardened. As a result, its MPs have reneged on a number of concessions made in recent months to reduce the Bill’s powers,” the group said.

“The Right2Know campaign is calling for a new period of action to stop the Secrecy Bill. We call on all those who are seriously concerned by this turn of events to make their collective voices heard now.”

It said the Bill “threatens to take our country back to the dark days of secrecy” and urged the ANC to go back to the drawing board to draft a law which was in line with the Constitution.

This week, opposition MPs told the chairperson of the ad hoc committee drafting the Bill, Cecil Burgess, that the Bill flouted the constitutional requirement for transparency.

This, after ruling party MPs rejected calls for the draft law to be made to apply only to security and intelligence agencies.

As it stands, the Bill gives any organ of state — a category that by definition includes not only all government departments but also the public broadcaster, libraries and even zoos — the power to classify information.

It also prescribes a minimum prison sentence of 15 years for anybody who makes top-secret information public.

The provision is widely seen an attempt to curb investigative reporting and criticism of the government.

Idasa analyst Judith February, who co-signed the Right2Know statement, said the Bill would affect all of South African society, not just the media, and campaigners would mobilise poor communities to oppose it.

“This Bill is bad news for everybody,” she said.

“If this is passed, it will have serious implications, particularly for poor communities and their right to information on issues of service delivery and corruption.

“It will effectively close off a layer of the state to scrutiny and contribute to the marginalisation of the poor.”

February said that after a few months in which ANC MPs serving on the committee had appeared open to dialogue, their attitude at its first meeting since the municipal elections indicated that “we have gone back to November”.

She was referring to public outcry over the Bill late last year that prompted Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele to remove a provision that would allow information to be kept under wraps to protect the “national interest” — a provision condemned as so nebulous that it would give the state the power to classify at random.

February said the Bill was “ripe for constitutional challenge” and the court was likely to take a dim view of Burgess’s handling of the process

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said this week that it was closely studying the latest version of the Bill because it appeared that it still posed fundamental problems.

On Wednesday, opposition MPs held an informal meeting with their ANC colleagues in a bid to reach consensus on the Bill, but said no progress was made.

This came after Burgess told MPs a day earlier that he was not prepared to allow debate on the Bill to continue indefinitely and ordered that clause-by-clause voting begin.

“We’ve heard all the arguments many times. We will be here for another year if we have to hear them all again. There is no way that you will get 100% consensus,” he said.

The deadline for the committee to complete its work is June 24. — Sapa