3 September 2010

South Africa: Changes to 'Secrecy Bill' Not Ruled Out

Photo: AllAfrica
Members of the media interviewing a politician.

Cape Town — The government is prepared to entertain changes to the controversial Protection of Information Bill but has warned that this can be done only as far as "is practicable and reasonable".

Objections to the so-called secrecy bill have continued to rage and a broad selection of civil society groups have formed an alliance to oppose the bill, which is presently before Parliament.

Its provisions will seriously harm freedom of the press by providing hefty prison sentences for those who publish classified information.

Chief government spokesman Themba Maseko told a post-Cabinet media briefing yesterday that the ongoing debate around the bill had been noted by the government.

"Government welcomes representations received from interested parties and appreciates the public's dedication and participation in the consultative processes enshrined in our constitution. We reiterate that this process has not been completed and the bill is yet to be finalised.

"Government, through the m inister of s tate s ecurity, is considering the valuable submissions and representations made during the public hearings and is committed to accommodating the views expressed as far as practicable and reasonable," Mr Maseko said.

He explained that State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele is focusing on areas of the bill that have been described as too broad or vague and which have the potential to infringe on constitutionally enshrined rights.

"Following this involved and detailed process, the m inister will table a comprehensive response to Parliament, when the committee working on the b ill sits for its next meeting," Mr Maseko said.

However, in response to questions, Mr Maseko said there were no indications at this stage which of the problematic clauses in the bill would be addressed.

The bill's definitions of "national interest" and "national security" have been criticised as being so wide that virtually any information could be classified as secret. Media organisations have also argued strongly for the specific inclusion of a public-interest defence for either whistle-blowers or journalists who make classified information public.

At the same briefing, Mr Maseko said it has been decided to "regularise" the situation of undocumented Zimbabweans in SA. The "special dispensation" for Zimbabweans will end on December 31.

There will also be an amnesty for Zimbabweans who have illegally obtained South African identity documents "on condition that such documents are returned to the Department of Home Affairs with immediate effect", he said.

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