Amended State Secrecy Bill Nears Passage in South Africa

23 April 2013

A modified version of the Protection of State Information Bill appears on the verge of passing in South Africa.

The National Assembly may take up the bill April 25 following the April 22 approval by an ad hoc committee.

The committee endorsed amendments made by the other body of parliament, the National Council of Provinces. The bill passed with the support of the African National Congress, but some parties continue to oppose it.

Some critics were quoted as saying the bill remains unconstitutional because it seeks to legislate the keeping of records of provincial archives. A court challenge is expected. The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) objects that the burden of proof for the state should be stricter in light of the maximum jail sentence of 25 years.

However, ACDP Member of Parliament Steve Swart was quoted as welcoming the changes, commenting, “I do not think this bill can still in good conscience be called a ‘secrecy bill’,” according to a report by the South African Press Association.

The report continued:

He singled out clause 41(c) of the bill, which protects anybody who publishes classified information to reveal a crime, from prosecution.

The clause was the compromise arrived at after opposition parties clamoured for a public interest defence to protect whistle-blowers and journalists who revealed secret information for the greater good from being sent to jail.

The NCOP members also dropped from the bill a clause which sought to make the new law trump the progressive Promotion of Access to Information Act, and another which imposed heavy jail sentences for revealing any information relating to a “state security matter”.

Murray Hunter from the Right2Know campaign continued to oppose the bill, and was quoted as saying, “I don’t understand their position of embracing a bill, but at the same time preparing to challenge it in the Constitutional Court.” The Right2Know campaign still considers the public interest defense inadequate, wanting a “public domain defense” that would prevent prosecution  once a state secret was already in the public domain.

For a complete report on the committee action see this page on the website of the Parliamentary Monitoring Service.

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