/ 16 November 2011

Secrecy Bill ‘not targeting the media’, says Cwele

Secrecy Bill 'not Targeting The Media'

The country’s free press is not the target of a controversial new secrecy Bill that critics fear could prevent exposure of official wrongdoing, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said on Wednesday.

“This Bill is not about regulating the media. There is no single mention of the media in this Bill,” Cwele told Parliament.

“Neither is this Bill about covering up corruption,” he added.

Media groups, watchdogs and opposition lawmakers have condemned the Protection of State Information Bill saying it could silence whistleblowing and investigative reporting.

The Bill, if passed, would make it illegal to hold or disclose sensitive information with jail terms of up to 25 years.

Public outcry
Changes to the Bill after a public outcry had been “a correct response to the concerns,” Cwele said.

The legislation was intended to overhaul outdated apartheid law and address threats of espionage, he added.

But Cwele ruled out a public interest defence that would protect disclosure of classified information if a court deemed it to be in society’s best interest.

“The fact is that the secrecy Bill amounts to a full-scale legislative assault on the freedom of the press and other media in South Africa,” said MP David Maynier of the Democratic Alliance.

Jail time
The Bill criminalises the possession and disclosure of classified material even if the documents expose wrongdoing and if exposure would serve the public interest, he said.

“So the question is not whether journalists will go to jail but which journalist will go to jail first,” he added.

The Bill is expected to be put to the vote next week after the African National Congress (ANC) held back in September, saying more time was needed for input.

However the Right2Know campaign, which opposes the Bill, said this week that “no public consultations have been conducted” and that promises by the ANC chief whip had been “utterly empty”.

It said despite Cwele’s claims on the constitutionality of the Bill, it had undergone several important changes over the past year.

“It is clear that parliamentarians are preparing to vote on the Bill without substantial changes,” it said.

“We condemn attempts by securocrats to spin these demands as ‘nice-to-haves’.” — AFP, Staff Reporter

The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill came as no surprise, raising the threat to media freedom. View our special report.