Secrecy Bill is ‘one or two meetings away’

The controversial Bill will soon become law. The ANC has indicated that it has gone as far as it could to accommodate input into and in amending the Protection of State Information Bill, as it is officially known, and will not be making any further changes.

On Wednesday, the National Council of Provinces's committee processing the proposed law, which seeks to regulate the classification of state information, indicated that

it needed one or two more meetings to complete its work on the Bill before referring it to the House for adoption.

The ANC said it will not be making any further amendments to the Bill, with its chief negotiator Sam Mazosiwe telling the meeting that "the ANC is satisfied that it had gone quite far to address issues, through a number of substantial proposals, and the time has come to finalise the Bill".

The Bill still lacks a public interest defence clause to protect those who publish classified information because it is in the public interest.

The National Assembly passed the Bill in November last year amid protests inside and outside Parliament from civil society groups and opposition parties that claim it is unconstitutional. It was then referred to the Council of Provinces for concurrence.

Many expected the council merely to rubber-stamp the National Assembly's version, but it made significant changes to the Bill and at times clashed with the state security ministry, the custodians of the Bill, over some of the proposed amendments. This followed a number of changes the ANC proposed in May, which included a compromise on a public interest defence as a way of protecting journalists and whistle-blowers, who risk prison to expose state wrongdoing.

The council of provinces changes included the deletion of clause 1(4), to remove any reference to the Bill taking precedence over the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

Another change was the removal of the phrase "ought reasonably to have known" in relation to offences throughout the Bill.

The Democratic Alliance's Alf Lees said this week's developments were both a win and a loss for opposition parties and the public. "The ANC has, however, dug in its heels and said that it was not necessary to make any further amendments to the Bill. This is a great loss for both the public and opposition parties that wished to continue deliberations until the Bill was brought in line with the Constitution."

The Right2Know campaign's Murray Hunter said some of the Council of Provinces's leaders have brought the Bill a long way, but it seems the securocrats have put their foot down with finality. "As a result we have a significantly less dangerous piece of legislation that is all the same an assault on open democracy.

"[There are] piles and piles of loopholes in who gets to make secrets, and on what grounds they can do so; and the provision of protection to officials who would abuse their power to make secrets and intimidate, silence and punish people who would try drag these secrets into the light," he said.

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