Lifting the lid on the ‘toxic gruel’

The ANC has finally set its face against a public interest defence for the disclosure of classified information under the Protection of Information Bill, making a Constitutional Court battle almost inevitable.

The move comes 18 months since the legislative process began, after many final deadlines and postponements and much cutting and pasting, justifying former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils's description of the Bill as "a dog's breakfast of toxic gruel".

An amendment allowing for a public-interest defence was civil society's most pressing demand.

Without it, a would-be whistle-blower who discloses a classified document that is deemed "directly or indirectly to … prejudice the national security of the republic" — even if it exposes corruption — risks a 15-year jail sentence. Mere disclosure attracts a jail sentence of up to five years.

The clause will have a particularly deadening effect on the work of investigative journalists, anti-corruption campaigners, shop stewards and others.


In fairness to the ANC, it has never suggested that a concession on this aspect of the law is possible. Indeed, its attitude has hardened. In the past it had said that the media and whistle-blowers could use the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) to access information, offsetting the provisions of the "Secrecy Bill".

Pow! to Paia
However, this week it proposed a new clause stipulating that where the Bill and Paia conflict the former will prevail.

Opponents of the Bill, including the Right2Know Campaign, have managed to wring concessions from the ruling party, but most of these are, at best, partial.

R2K pointed out this week that:

 

  • Although the power to classify and declassify information has been limited to the security services, police, defence and intelligence, through the backdoor the minister can still grant this power to more than a thousand state organs that have "good cause".
  • While the definition of national security as the justification for classifying information has been tightened, the revised definition encompasses the profoundly open-ended "exposure of economic, scientific or technological secrets vital to the republic".
  • Although commercial information is no longer overtly protected, the clause relating to economic, scientific or technological secrets potentially undermines this.
  • Although the Bill now provides for a panel to review the status of classified documents, there is still no oversight of decisions to classify them.

 

R2K pointed out that the Bill "contains the narrowest possible protection for whistle-blowers employed by the state and none whatsoever for ordinary citizens and journalists who expose a state secret that reveals wrongdoing or corruption in the state".

25 years in the slammer
"Though the minimum mandatory prison sentences for these offences have been removed, the maximum prison sentences are extraordinarily high — up to 25 years (where the disclosure would benefit a foreign state). Effectively, this Bill threatens to charge whistle-blowers on state security matters as foreign spies."

If passed, the Secrecy Act will draw a veil over the exercise of state power. It will help to mask the corrupt activities of those in government and facilitate cover-ups, tender irregularities and official fraud.

Glenda Daniels is on the Right2Know national working group

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Glenda Daniels
Guest Author

Related stories

Part I: ‘Afropessimism’ and the rituals of anti-black violence

Frank B Wilderson discusses 'Afropessimism', his memoir that analyses structural violence

Denis Goldberg: Man of integrity, freedom fighter and true mensch

One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised. — Chinua Achebe

Rights group wins court bid against Engen

The Right2Know Campaign has been allowed to join a court case against Engen, which used the Regulation of Gatherings Act to ban protests outside its Durban refinery

Durban smokestacks back in court

Engen will oppose the application by civil rights nonproft Right2Know to be a friend of the court in the precedent-setting case

ANC and the state step back from taking action against Zulu king’s land trust

Despite alleged abuses of power and people’s trust, the ANC appears to have abandoned plans to reform the controversial Ingonyama Trust Board

Gee-gee gambling on the Sabbath

Former minister Ronnie Kasrils writes in his memoir about what turns a boychick from the Jo’burg suburb of Yeoville into an ANC underground operative
Advertising

Jailed journalist a symbol of a disillusioned Zimbabwe

Hopewell Chin’ono backed President Emmerson Mnangagwa when he succeeded Robert Mugabe. Now he’s in jail

Sisulu axes another water board

Umgeni Water’s board in KwaZulu-Natal was appointed irregularly by her predecessor, the water and sanitation minister claims
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday