Opposition politicians and activists on Thursday accused the ANC of manipulating hearings on the Protection of State Information Bill.
They claimed this was being done to mislead the public and manufacture support for the contested draft law.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) said at a hearing in Port Elizabeth, one of three that took place in the Eastern Cape on Thursday that members of the party had been denied a chance to speak.
DA MP Alf Lees said the microphone had been turned off when speakers colloquially referred to the proposed legislation as the “secrecy Bill”.
“Shutting out feedback that embarrasses the ANC is in stark contrast to Mr [Raseriti] Tau’s calls for broad public participation,” he said, referring to the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces’ (NCOP) ad hoc committee processing the Bill.
“The ANC went to great lengths to manufacture public support for the secrecy Bill.”
‘Accepted by the public’
Lees claimed the ruling party had bussed supporters to a hearing in Barkly East and “effectively turned the event into an ANC rally”.
“There was a clear attempt to project the image at that hearing that the Bill is broadly accepted by the public,” said Lees.
Tau rejected the claim.
“Anybody who says I tried to shut the DA down is lying because the majority of people at the hearing were from the DA, down to wearing DA T-shirts.”
The Right2Know campaign complained that the ANC misrepresented the Bill at the first two public hearings on the Bill held in the Western Cape earlier in the week.
“It is deceptive because the way the Bill is introduced contains glaring omissions on its substance,” said Murray Hunter, the national coordinator of the campaign.
“People were not given a chance to read and apply their mind to something they are asked to sign off on. The way in which it is being done is not conducive to debate,” he said.
Ruling party MPs presenting the Bill skimmed over a contentious clause on espionage but stressed those seeking to safeguard personal information in state hands, Hunter said.
He said there were barely a handful of copies of the Bill available at the first public meeting on the Bill in Thembalethu outside George and no sign of a promised two-page synopsis.
Hunter conceded that those who attended hearings should inform themselves about the Bill but said many of the 300 people present at the Thembalethu hearing told him “they were called there and did not know what it was about”.
At the same time, he said, NCOP chief whip Nosipho Ntwanambi charged that speakers representing the Right2Know campaign were paid to attend the hearing.
The NCOP committee said in a statement it was satisfied with the meeting in Thembalethu and a second one held in Gugulethu on Tuesday.
It conceded the Bill “elicited mixed reactions” from participants, and that Tau had acknowledged there had not been enough copies of the Bill.
“We relied on Parliament’s communications service and there was a problem,” said Tau.
The ad hoc committee plans to hold at least two public hearings in every province, ending with the Northern Cape on March 1. This would be followed by a further hearing at Parliament a fortnight later.
On Thursday, a third meeting in the Eastern Cape was held in Mthatha.
The ANC drove the Bill through the National Assembly in November despite widespread concern that it would inhibit investigative media reporting and whistle-blowing on corruption.
It criminalises possession and publication of classified information and introduces prison sentences of up to five years for the latter. If the information relates to the intelligence services, the maximum jail term goes up to 15 years.
Media houses, civil rights groups and the Congress of South African Trade Unions have vowed to challenge the Bill in the Constitutional Court if it is adopted without incisive amendments. — Sapa
The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill came as no surprise, raising the threat to media freedom. View our special report.