SA Committee Approves Amended Secrecy Bill

23 November 2012

An ad hoc committee of the South African Parliament has approved the secrecy bill, setting the stage for expected passage the National Council of Provinces and the National Assembly in the upcoming weeks.

The committee Nov. 21 dropped a controversial provision that would have made the new law override the Promotion of Access to Information Act and compromise language was adopted. (See report of the Parliamentary Monitoring Group and detailed article in The Daily Maverick by Rebecca Davis.)

As reworked, the Protection of State Information Bill says that in the case of a clash between the new official secrets legislation and any other law, courts must prefer a reasonable interpretation that avoids a conflict “taking into consideration the need to protect and classify certain state information in terms of this Act,” the Mail & Guardian reported.

The newspaper also hinted that further changes could be in store, describing a private meeting in which the African National Congress “rejected” State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele’s controversial proposed changes to the bill “and instead appeared to have been convinced by trade union federation Cosatu to change it.”

The paper reported:

An ANC source, who was part of the meeting, claims that the party “begged” Vavi to endorse the Bill as it was – without a public interest defence clause and with the controversial clause 1(4) in it. This clause would result in the Bill overriding the constitutionally mandated Promotion of Access to Information Act should there be conflict between the two laws.

But Vavi allegedly demanded the inclusion of a public interest defence clause, the removal of clause 1(4) and a further narrowing of the scope of the Bill.

According to the source, Vavi also suggested that the ANC should advise President Jacob Zuma to refer the Bill to the Constitutional Court for vetting before signing it into law.

“They [the ANC study group) were not keen on this,” said the source.

The study group was allegedly also not keen on including the public interest defence clause.

“They were begging Vavi to give support to the Bill, saying how much good work they’ve done on it and citing the changes they’ve made thus far,” said the source.

At the committee meeting, ANC members proposed to reinsert a clause offering protection for those who reveal classified information to expose a crime.

The ad hic committee is expected to take a final vote on the bill Nov. 27. Debate in the National Council of Provinces may take place on Nov. 29, at which point the bill would be referred back to the National Assembly for adoption.

The bill’s critics continue to raise objections and have been holding vigils and other protests.

The Right2Know Campaign statement:

Late last night in Parliament the ANC used its numerical majority to force the Secrecy Bill one step closer to becoming a Secrecy Law.

Members of the NCOP ad hoc committee voted to finalise a Bill that still carries the fingerprints of the securocats who have remained the ‘hidden hand’ behind this process from the start. The finalised version criminalises the public for possessing information that has already been leaked, protects Apartheid-era secrets, and still contains broad definitions of National Security that will in all likelihood be used to suppress legitimate disclosures in the public interest. In short, the Secrecy Bill remains a clear threat to South Africa’s right to know.

Yesterday’s amendments that ensure the Bill will not trump the Promotion of Access to Information Act  and introduce tighter – but still only partial – protection for whistleblowers come as little comfort as members of the ANC have evidently relented to pressure from the securocats and seem determined to suppress any further debate on the matter.

The Right2Know Campaign remains committed to fighting for a just classification law that governs how the State should keeps very limited secrets. The Secrecy Bill remains a threat to our democracy and we will continue our campaign to Stop the Secrecy Bill as the ANC pushes it through the NCOP and National Assembly. If Parliament fails to introduce the necessary amendments and President Zuma signs it into law, the Rigth2Know will take the fight to the Constitutional Court.

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