/ 2 November 2012

Editorial: Keeping secrets safe

A protester against the Protection of State Information Bill takes part in a night vigil.
A protester against the Protection of State Information Bill takes part in a night vigil.

The special committee in the National Council of Provinces considering the Bill has worked hard over the last few months, consulting widely, incorporating fresh views and, in the process, extending its deadlines.

It came up, among other amendments, with protection for those who disclose classified information in order to reveal a crime, and sought more harmony with the Promotion of Access to Information Act which, given its origins in the Constitution, ought to be the supreme information law.

Now the state security minister has made an eleventh-hour appearance before the committee and sought to sweep all that away. He wants to drop the limited public interest defence offered by the committee and to ensure that the secrecy Bill trumps the Access to Information Act. With the Bill still so problematic, he wants to roll back the most limited of compromises.

There are still provisions that allow for charges of espionage against those who reveal secrets, even where the state cannot prove their intent. Jail terms of 25 years are still envisaged. The authority to classify is still far too broad.

Where does Siyabonga Cwele's insistence on absolute secrecy and draconian punishment come from? Certainly not from the ANC benches: many of his ANC comrades in the National Council of Provinces disagreed profoundly with his logic and his approach this week. Perhaps it comes from the security cluster power players who are so ready to put themselves at the service of a factional project, rather than the Constitution.

Certainly secrecy and impunity walk hand in hand. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa is attempting to stop an inquiry into police behaviour in Khayelitsha and Jacob Zuma is defying a court order in an attempt to keep hidden the secret surveillance tapes that got him off the hook on corruption charges.

It is not South Africans who are endangered by access to information – it is this authoritarian cabal. A credible Protection of State Information Act is possible, but not if the securocrats get their way.