South African Government Brings POIB Up for Debate

16 November 2011

The South African Parliament on Nov 16 began debate on the controversial protection of information.

While government ministers called the measure necessary and not aimed at the media, critics said that the government had failed to consult widely as promised and that the bill’s faults remained. A vote next week is expected with court challenges likely to follow if the government prevails.  See reports on the heated opening remarks in Times Live, The Mail & Guardian and News 24.

State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said he remains firmly opposed to a “public interest defense” that would protect those disclosing classified information if a court deemed it to be in society’s best interest.

The Right2Know Coalition calling on supporters to protest at the parliament building. For a detailed discussion on threats still contained in the Secrecy Bill, the group advised watching Free Media, Free Minds! on television and online.

Commenting on the decision of the African National Congress to bring the bill to a vote, a Right2Know statement said in part:

On 19 October, following the shelving of the Bill ostensibly for further consultation, the ANC Chief Whip’s office committed itself to a transparent and clearly road-mapped process to “ensure that as many people as possible, regardless of their political allegiance, get an opportunity to have a say on the draft legislation before it is passed into law.” Communities were promised ample notice of upcoming meetings to express their views on the Secrecy Bill.

After several weeks of closed-door meetings between ANC provincial caucuses and the Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele and senior aides, the ANC appears to have rendered any public engagement meaningless by moving the Bill back to the National Assembly. No public consultations have been conducted, showing the Chief Whip’s promises to be utterly empty.

Summarizing its continuing issues with the bill, the group stated:

* Harsh prison sentences of up to 25 years, with no protection for whistleblowers except for the most minor offences. Even those who harbor whistleblowers may face prison sentences.
* Anyone who comes into possession of a state secret faces up to five years in prison if they do not hand the information to police or security services.
* Last-minute drafting by the Parliamentary ad hoc committee ensured that the Secrecy Bill would trump the Promotion of Access to Information Act which promotes citizens’ right to know.
* The Bill shuts off the state security agencies from any kind of scrutiny or accountability to the public.

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