SA Committee Adopts Protection of Information Bill

2 September 2011

A committee of the South African Parliament has passed a Protection of Information Bill.

While somewhat toned down from the original proposal offered a year ago, the final version is still considered objectionable by critics and possibly unconstitutional. (See previous report.)

The bill now goes to the whole Parliament, where vote before Sept. 15 is expected. Opponents vowed to bring a legal challenge once the bill passes, which is expected. In an article on the final committee vote Sept. 5, The Independent describes the legisaltive path forward.

In the final few days of meetings during the week of Aug.29, the ruling African National Congress rejected calls for inclusion of a clause to protect those making disclosures in the public interest and eventually exercised its majority to pass the bill.

The Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party and African Christian Democratic Party all moved to allow such a defense but were outvoted eight to four Aug. 31 by the ANC, according to a report by the South Africa Press Association and another in The Independent.  Rejecting the public interest defense concept, ANC MP Luwellyn Landers said it was designed to protect the media from being sent to jail for publishing classified information.

The ACDP’s Steve Swart said he would petition President Jacob Zuma to refer the legislation to the Constitutional Court before he signs it into law, according to SAPA, which quoted him as saying: “We have made very good progress on the bill apart from the public interest defense. It is a major issue and it makes the bill open to challenge and therefore we will ask the president to the Constitutional Court for its decision.”

During the long course of the committee deliberations, a variety of alterations were made to the bill, such as narrowing the definition of national security, and reducing some of the criminal penalties.

Said the DA’s Dene Smuts: “We have rewritten this bill as a decent piece of intelligence and classification law. It is only in the offences clauses that it has gone wrong, to our enormous regret,” she added.

The ANC agreed to a proposal by Oriani Ambrosini to rewrite a contentious clause that would have prohibited the publication of any “state security matter,” according to another SAPA account. “This had been seen as giving intelligence agents near unfettered powers to keep information secret. The redraft prohibits the publication of only classified information relating to the work of state security agents, but increases the maximum penalty for this crime to 10 years in prison.

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