ANC Holding Firm on Secrecy Legislation in South Africa

15 April 2011

The ruling African National Congress in South Africa this week indicated it will not make significant changes to its controversial Protection of Information Bill.

“Reading the position paper, it’s clear that the ANC’s position has hardly shifted since the massive public outcry last October,” said Alison Tilley of the Right2Know campaign.

Little progress was made during a session of the ad hoc committee considering the bill when ANC members said they had not studied proposals made by opponents of the bill. 

Luwellyn Landers, who has led the ANC’s arguments, said it was unlikely that the parties would find further agreement, according to a report by the South African Press Association. She was quoted as saying: “Any differences we have, we will have. There is nothing that can be done about that. We have tried our level best. On some points we have found each other, on others we have not.”

Cecil Burgess, the ANC chairperson of the ad hoc committee, said he had “not been able to apply my mind other than in a casual manner and given it a very superficial glance.”

The chairman has scheduled the next meeting for April 19, but that will be the last session for a parliamentary recess that ends May 20. The deadline for committee action on the bill is June 24.

SAPA reported:

There have been fears that the ANC would use its majority to rush the bill through Parliament in its current form, with severe implications for news reporting and little to limit the wide powers state officials have at present to file information as secret.

This would likely set the stage for a Constitutional Court challenge by other political parties and rights groups.

Opposition MPs said they believed the true reason for the delay was that the ANC was still waiting for a political mandate on how to proceed with the bill that has become a political quagmire.

“The ANC needs to look into its own soul and see whether more time will make a difference,” Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini said.

The ANC this week proposed one modification, to restrict classification  to instances where not doing it would be “likely or could reasonably be expected to cause demonstrable harm.”

However, a statement by the Right2Know campaign objected that under the ANC position paper:

  • The Bill would still apply to 1001 organs of state;
  • The Bill still tries to criminalise “information peddling”, described as “the fabricating of information and thereafter distributing or publishing it or allowing it to be distributed or published with the intention of or which has the effect of “prejudicing or destabilising the security of the Republic”;
  • There are still no provision for a review structure or independent oversight;
  • The ANC position provides the narrowest possible protection for whistleblowers, and does not provide public interest defence for journalists.

The statement continued:

It is even clearer now that the committee will not be able to finish by its 24 June deadline. A clause-by-clause rewrite can only begin next week. At best, the ANC MPs’ conduct today shows that the Bill’s problems are too deep-set to be dealt with by the committee; at worst it underscores fears that the ruling party intends to ram through this legislation with its draconian measures intact.

 The Right2Know campaign is organising meetings in Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban this month to take stock of the climate of secrecy in South Africa and to develop a plan to turn up the pressure on politicians who are resisting transparency.

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