Contested S.African info bill nears finalisation

Fri Sep 2, 2011 3:57pm GMT
 

By Wendell Roelf

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's parliament is expected to pass shortly a much criticised state secrecy bill after removing provisions giving agencies broad power to keep information hidden and draconian penalties that critics likened to apartheid-era laws.

Introduced by the Ministry of State Security in 2010, the draft law spooked investors worried that government agencies would hide from public view market-sensitive information, as well as journalists who faced up to 25 years in jail for illegally publishing classified information.

The ruling ANC, whose members dominate the special committee dealing with the Protection of Information Bill, recently agreed to a number of concessions that include narrowing the definition of national security and limiting the application of the bill to the intelligence, defence and police sectors.

The ANC-backed bill, which has reduced criminal penalties for violations, is expected to easily pass because of the party's overwhelming majority in parliament. The bill could be put up for a vote in the next few weeks, and is likely to be passed at least by the end of the year.

Initially the bill allowed all organs of state, estimated at around 1,000 entities and including public institutions such as state-owned power utility Eskom to classify information.

However, the committee dismissed an appeal to allow the release of secrets if it was in the public interests to do so --a measure sought to protect whistleblowers and media.

"We reiterate our assertion -- which we made in response to the public hearings -- that to include such a defence would be to shred the bill even before it becomes law," the Ministry of State Security said in a statement.

Opposition MPs said the constitutionality of the bill is questioned without a "public interest" provision.

"The omission of a public interest defence ... will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, including the freedom to receive or impart information or ideas," said Dene Smuts, shadow justice minister for the main opposition Democratic Alliance.

Media groups have also criticised the measure as an attempt to stifle investigative reporting after the government of President Jacob Zuma was criticised by investors and one of its strongest allies, labour federation COSATU, for fostering cronyism and corruption.

 
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