/ 8 June 2011

‘Bedrock of the info Bill is problematic’

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos on Tuesday called for a complete rethink of the Protection of Information Bill, warning that lawmakers’ minor concessions would not save the draft law from being struck down by the Constitutional Court.

“I don’t think tinkering on the margins in Parliament is going to save it because the whole premise is problematic,” De Vos said at a panel discussion on the Bill in Cape Town.

The talks were organised by the Right2Know campaign, which is driving public opposition to the so-called “secrecy bill”.

“I said last year the Bill was unconstitutional … I maintain that. The very bedrock of the Bill is problematic — that secrecy exists to protect the national security,” he said.

De Vos said it was a fallacy that the Bill limited only rights that were “nice to have”, but not essential, and the Constitutional Court did not hold that view.

“The Constitutional Court has made it clear that these rights are very important … it goes to the very heart of democracy, because if there is no freedom of expression and if there is no free flow of information, it is impossible for each individual person to make decisions about their political beliefs, about who they want to vote for, about whether they want to go toyi-toyi.”

He said the court had also made it clear that transparency protected personal dignity by allowing people to make informed choices about their lives.

“The Constitutional Court also says it is important not only because of democracy or for political rights, but also for an individual person’s dignity.

Lesser human being
“It takes away your dignity if somebody else, the state security minister in this case, tells you that certain things are not allowed to be known. You then become a lesser human being.”

De Vos said the Bill was doomed unless the ANC agreed to narrow a flowery definition of national security and removed a clause enabling more than 1 000 organs of state to classify information, a category ranging from state departments to the South African Broadcasting Corporation to municipalities and museums.

“Unless you take that thousand organs of state out, there is a problem. It is extremely broad and I cannot imagine that any court is going to say this is constitutionally valid.”

De Vos shared the stage with cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, or Zapiro, the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (Cosatu) parliamentary representative Prakashnee Govender, Human Rights Commission deputy chairperson Pregs Govender, and Imam Rashied Omar from the Western Cape Religious Leaders’ Forum.

Protests against the Bill initially focused on the threat it posed to media freedom, but opponents have increasingly pointed out that it would deny the poor insight into the workings of government, and deter workers from exposing corruption by introducing prison sentences for publishing secret information.

Govender said the draft law was an attack on the right of the poor to know how those in power spent state resources.

“They want to know what happened, who is benefiting where million rand tenders are awarded and where bridges collapse and children drown?

“Ordinary South Africans want to know what happened with the arms deal, they want to know what state policies resulted in them losing their jobs.”

Pressure on lawmakers mounted last week when ANC alliance partner Cosatu threatened to launch a Constitutional Court challenge if the Bill were rushed through Parliament in its present form.

ANC MPs subsequently called for an extension of the June 24 deadline to complete the Bill. – Sapa