Revised POI Bill Still Objectionable, Groups Say

17 September 2010

South Africa’s State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele Sept. 17 proposed a few changes to the controversial Protection of Information bill, but critics called the concessions inadequate.

In particular, Cwele said that “broad and vague concepts must be dropped from the body of the bill,” according to a summary of his statement.  “In this regard, the concepts of ‘national interest and “commercial information’, amongst others will be removed,” the summary said, indicating that specific proposals will be submitted to the ad hoc parliamentary committee before which he testified.

Among other things, the government-proposed “Protection of Information Bill” would deny the disclosure of information deemed harmful to the “national interest,” defined broadly to include “all matters relating to the advancement of the public good.” (See previous report.)

The minister rejected calls for further modifications, according to press accounts.

He opposed inclusion of a public-interest defense for use by those who leak or publish leaked materials. “Cwele said citizens were free to use this as an argument to apply to be given access to state secrets, but not as a defence once the information had been leaked,” according to the Mail & Guardian account of the hearing.

He also declined to back down on the need for prison sentences of up to 15 years for publishing secret material, saying they would serve as a “deterrent to unauthorised disclosure.” But he said the government would ask lawmakers to introduce similarly harsh sentences for state officials who abused the classification system. He rejected calls for an independent review board.

The Mail & Guardian said Cwele “depicted South Africa as a country riddled with spies and information-peddlers who sought to destabilise democracy, undermine national food security and steal valuable commercial information.”

Cwele Position Criticized

The Right2Know Campaign said the minister “has remained deaf to civil society’s loud and clear call for any secrecy legislation to meet Constitutional demands for a responsive and accountable democracy that can meet the basic needs of our people.”

The campaign’s statement noted “the cosmetic nature of the proposals tabled by the minister” and said “they represent no fundamental shift on his Secrecy Bill.” The statement said none of the specific proposals for change had been met and stated:  

The minister has once again revealed Minister Cwele and his ministry’s fixation with secrecy over openness by saying that protection of information is “the oil that lubricates our democracy.” This oil, we fear, will only lubricate the machinations of the corrupt and the unaccountable.
The Minister has failed to respond to the core demands made by the over 350 civil society organizations and more than 9,000 individuals who have signed on to the Right2Know Campaign.

African Rapporteur Criticizes Bill

Coming out against the bill recently was Pansy Tlakula, African Union special rapporteur on freedom of expression, who said, “If this bill is passed in its current form, it will affect not only the media, but all of us and it will deprive all of us of our right to know.”

Tlakula pointed out that SA has ratified most of the international agreements related to the free access to information and freedom of expression. “As things stand, some sections of this bill clearly violate the standards of these international best practices and agreements, and my mandate is to ensure that the country actually abides by these rules,” she said, according to a media report.

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