CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa’s parliament is set to pass new laws on state secrets this week that have been widely criticised as attempts to muzzle media and intimidate whistle blowers who would face stiff prison sentences for releasing classified documents.
The measures, to be voted on in parliament on Tuesday, come amid growing concerns of cronysim in President Jacob Zuma’s government, which has been hit by a barrage of embarrassing media reports about corruption in its ranks.
Critics are worried the law could hamper investigations such as the one into a questionable arms deal from about a decade ago that led to the conviction of several officials for bribery.
South African media broke the story using secret documents, but under the new law, reporters and editors could be jailed for similar disclosures.
Zuma, in power for more than two years, and his spokesman have been implicated in the 30 billion rand deal to buy European arms but not convicted.
Zuma’s ruling African National Congress has defended the legislation as conforming to international standards. State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele rejected calls to include a “public interest” clause to allow for the revealing of secrets if it was to the benefit of citizens.
Cwele said including such a clause would help foreign agents who have been a threat to the ANC since it took over at the end of apartheid 17 years ago. The ANC enjoys virtual one-party rule and can steam roll the legislation through parliament.
“The foreign spies continue to steal our sensitive information in order to advantage their nations at the expense of advancement of South Africa and her people,” he told parliament last week.
The bill is aimed at protecting “valuable information by all organs of state”, he said. It calls for compulsory reviews after 10 years for possible declassification and mandatory declassification after 20 years unless the government provides compelling evidence for keeping information secret.
The ANC was forced to water down the bill, eliminating a section that worried investors by allowing all state entities to classify any information they saw as sensitive.
This would have allowed regulators and state owned enterprises to keep their dealings secret. The new legislation allows only a handful of security agencies to classify data.
Critics have described penalties of several years in jail for whistle blowers and investigative reporters who use classified information or are in possession of it as draconian and are considering a legal challenge.
“It goes beyond the media and corruption and will have a pernicious effect on ordinary citizens,” said Elston Seppie, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute.
The bill, likely to be adopted by parliament’s main house on Tuesday, will then be referred to the upper house for ratification before it is sent to Zuma for signing into law.
It has drawn even more attention in the last week after Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj filed a lawsuit against the influential newspaper Mail & Guardian to prevent it from publishing information it said links him to a shady arms deal and possible fraudulent testimony to investigators.