Public hearings on secrecy Bill veer off topic

Service delivery problems took centre stage in Mamelodi on Tuesday at a public hearing on the Protection of State Information Bill.

Many residents ignored the agenda of the parliamentary ad-hoc committee on the Bill and National Council of Provinces (NCOP) members constantly had to remind them what the hearing was about.

“Drugs have become common in Mamelodi. We can even go out now with you and show you young children using nyaope [a cocktail of addictive drugs] in the streets,” said an emotional elderly woman.

Other speakers blamed local police for turning a blind eye to criminal activities and for soliciting for bribes.

“Our identity documents show that we have voted continually. Our lives are not evident of people enjoying democracy,” said another woman, to applause from the floor.

Democratic Alliance member Solly Msimanga spoke about the Bill, saying it significantly undermined what many South Africans died for while fighting apartheid.

Harsh conditions
“This Bill will be widely abused by government departments. We want to be able to know what the government is doing with our money,” he said.

“Such draconian laws drove many of our people into exile years ago. We should guard against going back to that era again.”

Journalist Elias Maluleke disagreed and said the Bill should be passed without delay.

He and other journalists had worked under harsh conditions during apartheid and the media today could not say its work would be hindered by the Bill, he said.

“The media today is operating like a mafia. They are permanently damaging people’s lives and hiding behind a public interest clause. Pass that Bill in its current form,” said Maluleke.

Peter Mothiba, a presenter at the local radio station Mams FM, criticised parliamentarians for not explaining to communities what the Bill aimed to achieve.

“We all know that if anyone is wronged by the media, there are proper channels to sue the publication. What then will this Bill aim to protect because we are already protected under common law?” asked Mothiba.

Excessive power
Other participants expressed fears that the Bill would give the police and other security agents excessive power.

“This Bill will never pass a Constitutional Court review. We have told you that we don’t want this Bill and if you want to go ahead with your hearings, you are wasting time and resources,” said Meeka Masooa.

“Go ahead and pass it if that is what you want, but the Constitutional Court will kick this Bill out.”

National Press Club (NPC) chairperson Yusuf Abramjee earlier told the gathering that had it not been for the media and whistle-blowers, many instances of corruption would not have been exposed.

He said the Bill, if passed in its present form, would lead to wide classification of information.

“The Bill in its current form is clearly open to abuse. It provides for wide-ranging powers relating to the classification [of information].

“Officials, including junior civil servants and members of security services, are authorised to classify documents with the head of departments.”

Public interest clause
Abramjee said this was in conflict with another clause in the Bill which stipulated that classification had to be done on a senior level.

He said whistle-blowers were going to be scared “to lift the lid on corruption”, fearing long jail terms.

Abramjee appealed to the NCOP to consider including a public interest clause in line with the dictates of the Constitution.

“We cannot sit back and allow unconstitutional laws to be passed. Editors and journalists are prepared to go to jail defending our freedom,” he said.

ANC veteran Amos Mkhontho said he believed the Bill, if passed, would take South Africa backwards.

“Do you still remember those days we used to read newspapers hiding under carpets? We do not want those days to come again. Look at countries like Zimbabwe who have such laws. Their people have fled to our country.”

Two public hearings on the so-called secrecy Bill are scheduled in Gauteng. The second takes place in Sharpeville, near Vereeniging. — Sapa

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

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