South African Minister Defends Information Bill

22 October 2010

South Africa’s minister of state security Oct. 22 defended a controversial Protection of Information Bill, urging a parliamentary committee not to include a public interest defense to shelter whistle-blowers who violate state secrecy.

The testimony by Siyabonga Cwele came during his second appearance before the ad hoc committee considering the government-backed bill which among other things proposes sentences of up to 25 years for anyone, including a journalist, who helps to publish classified information.

His testimony was widely reported, including by The Times.

“Never should the committee therefore concede to a public interest defence and include such in this bill, I beg,” Cwele testified.

A public interest defense would allow anyone who leaks classified information to argue in court that there was a legitimate public interest in doing so.

“To allow anyone to put national security information in the public domain with a hope that such action may, in the unlikely event, be deemed to be in the public interest would be simply reckless,” he said. “Conceding to such a demand would be tantamount to shredding this bill even before it becomes law.”

The Times also reported that Cwele said existing legislation provides avenues to gain official access to classified documents in the public interest and denied that the bill was designed to protect the government from legitimate scrutiny.

Cwele confirmed previous indications that the government would remove a provision allowing “national interest” and “commercial interest” to be used as reasons to classify information and said the draft would be revised to make it clear that the purpose of classification should be in line with international best practice.

The minister’s remarks were criticized by the opposition party and by the Right2Know campaign, which said in part:

Judged by his ever more desparate attempts at spin, the minister is clearly feeling the heat. Right2Know will not be put off course. It  will continue its Week of Action, culminating in a mass march to Parliament and Durban City Hall next Wednesday, October 27.

In September, after Right2Know and others highlighted the draconian nature of his Bill, Cwele came to Parliament claiming to have “heard”  the concerns. He outlined proposed changes, which were cosmetic at  best. Today’s perfomance was only so much more hot air.

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