28 July 2010

South Africa: Secrecy Bill Declared 'Fully Constitutional'

Photo: AllAfrica
Members of the international and local press corps waited to record President Yar'Adua's first state visit to South Africa. In the background is a statue of Louis Botha, Afrikaner fighter against British colonialism, on horseback.

Cape Town — Despite a raft of objections to the government's "secrecy bill" in last week's public hearings, chief state law adviser Enver Daniels has declared the bill fully constitutional and has dismissed some of the submissions as "emotional and hysterical".

Significantly, Mr Daniels also emphatically rejected the numerous calls for a public interest defence for journalists and whistle-blowers exposing wrongdoing by the state.

He said this meant anything could be published without taking consequences into consideration.

Harsh minimum sentences are imposed in the bill for those caught making public classified information. Detailed submissions last week from, among others, the South African National Editors' Forum, Print Media SA, the Mail & Guardian and the Institute for Democracy in SA (Idasa), called for a public interest defence to be included in the bill to protect investigative journalism from being shut down.

Yesterday Mr Daniels, briefing Parliament's ad hoc committee on the Protection of Information Bill, also rejected suggestions that the definitions of national interest and national security as contained in the bill were overly broad. He said that if a simple, one-line definition had been used then the bill would easily have been labelled arbitrary. Criticism has been that broad definitions will allow almost any government document to be classified.

The fact that the committee gave Mr Daniels free rein to shoot down the submissions in its first meeting after the hearings seems to indicate there is little room for substantive changes to the bill.

In a separate development, the manager of Idasa's Political Information and Monitoring Service, Judith February, wrote to National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu, noting that some senior members of the ad hoc committee had not attended a single meeting, thus harming the committee's ability to deliberate effectively on the bill.

She said that Vytjie Mentoor, Johnny de Lange, Annalise van Wyk, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mario Oriani-Ambrosini had not attended all the meetings.

Ms February said: "Several concerns arise from their absence. We are concerned at the possible implications of their absence, both procedurally, as well as the impact this may have on substantive issues of law and process. We were disappointed with the tone of the hearings and the shallow questioning.

"In view of the far-reaching implications of the bill, Idasa is concerned that, in these circumstances, Parliament will be unable to do justice to its responsibilities. "

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