South African Security Agency Testifies on Secrecy Bill

8 June 2012

The South African Department of State Security (DSS) on June 6 objected to including a public interest defense in the secrecy bill being considered by  the Ad Hoc Committee on Protection of State Information Bill (NCOP), according to a detailed summary and minutes by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group and media accounts.

The DSS expressed concern that the bill as amended could result in damage to national security. For a detailed report see one by Deon de Lange in The Independent and another, byKwanele Sosibo,  in The Mail  & Guardian.

The Right2Know Coalition criticized the DSS position, commenting:

The public interest defence is not a cloak for the malevolent – we are asking that genuine disclosure of classified information in the public interest be protected, from civil servants, agency employees to journalists, readers, researchers and community activists. The SSA don’t seem to appreciate the real deterrent effect that will remain even if a public interest defence is included. People who use such a defence will still be taking an extraordinary risk when blowing the whistle. The concession by the ANC that disclosure of information that shows criminal activity should be protected  from prosecution is a small step in the right direction and should be welcomed.

According to the summary by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, the security agency “stressed that the Bill was not seeking to take any rights away, but only to limit them, to the extent strictly necessary, in the context of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Constitution.”

The DSS also said that information could continue to be sought through the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), but the Coalition replied:

The Agency has also stood firm on a clause that would ensure the Secrecy Bill trumps the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), which aims to promote people’s right to access information. Given that PAIA itself has routinely failed as a mechanism to ensure that people’s right to access information is upheld, it is unacceptable that the Secrecy Bill should be used to further undermine transparency.

The Parliamentary Monitoring Group summary also said that the DSS “did not agree that the definition of “national security” was over-broad, and pointed out that it mirrored what was in the Constitution.”

 “The DSS was opposed to submissions that the Classification Review Panel (the Panel) should be accessible to members of the public,” according to the same summary.

The committee also discussed its own next steps. The summary concluded:

Most of the Committee’s deliberations focused on the procedure to be followed, since the Committee had been expecting to hear responses from the DSS to the proposals that Members had made at earlier meetings. It was decided that the DSS and the State Law Advisors should attend all meetings in the following week, to interact with the Committee on each clause. Some questions of clarity were raised, and answered, in relation to the public interest defence and public interest override, the distinction between pre- and post-disclosure tests, the concept that the public should be able to approach Parliamentarians before approaching the Court, and the effect of clause 1(4), and the sentencing provisions.

Continuing Opposition

An article by Afua Hirsh in The Guardian links the South African bill with a pattern of media repression in Africa. The article begins:

African media campaigners say South Africa’s secrecy bill is part of a continent-wide pattern of political desire to clamp down on the freedom of press, a development with implications far beyond South Africa’s own borders.

The Guardian also recently summarized the opposition to the bill.

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