What’s still wrong with the Secrecy Bill

The Right2Know Campaign (R2K) and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) have filed submissions to the National Council of Provinces ad-hoc committee on the Protection of State Information Bill, highlighting remaining concerns about the Bill.

The ad-hoc committee is conducting public hearings in several provinces. In mid-March, the committee will hold hearings in parliament where organised groups can make presentations. These hearings are a final opportunity to convince legislators to make changes to the Bill before it is passed into law.

The National Assembly passed the current version late last year after bringing about some changes, which included narrowing down the proliferation of state bodies which will have the power to classify information

Unauthorised possession and disclosure of classified records will attract heavy penalties.

R2K, Sanef and others maintain that the amendments have not gone far enough, and at the very least should contain a public interest defence, so that the disclosure of state secrets are not criminalised where the public benefit in disclosure outweighs the harm to national security.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism is a founding member of R2K, whose submission summarises major remaining concerns as:

  • The Bill burdens all of society with what should be a state problem, namely the keeping of state secrets. Ordinary people should not be criminalised for possessing and disclosing classified information — to do so will edge South Africa towards a “society of secrets”, where free information exchanges and debate are inhibited by a culture of fear.
  • The alternative means of protecting the public and a key demand of civil society, a public interest defence, remains absent from the Bill.
  • The Bill’s supposed remedies for public access, such as whistleblower protection and access to information/declassification procedures, remain seriously defective.
  • The State Security Agency remains the beneficiary of unjustifiably heightened protection, not only for its work but its organisational being. This stretches the veil of secrecy beyond what is acceptable in a Constitutional democracy such as ours.
  • The Minister and State Security Agency’s role as “guardians” of other state departments’ valuable information remains a problem.
  • The Classification Review Panel is not independent enough and not accessible to ordinary people.
  • Bad drafting in a number of instances has left the Bill in its current form wide open to abuse.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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