24 May 2011

South Africa: ANC Starts Voting on Info Bill

Acrimony erupted over the Protection of Information Bill on Tuesday as the ANC began voting in its proposals for the contentious draft law, leaving opposition MPs and activists to cry foul.

Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier said the ruling party appeared to be reneging on concessions that it made before Parliament went into recess for the municipal elections.

"It appears that they are trying to take back the concessions they made now that the elections are over," he said after a tense meeting of the ad hoc committee drafting the bill was adjourned until Thursday.

The ANC voted to remove a clause of the bill that it had proposed to include last year and that stipulated that it must be harmonised with the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

This would have opened a back door to a public interest override clause contained in the act, allowing argument that information must be declassified for the public good.

But on Tuesday the ANC made clear that it was not open to persuasion on insistent calls to include a clause that would allow reporters facing prosecution for revealing secret information to argue that they had acted in the public interest.

"The ANC is digging its heels in on the basis that we cannot find support for that in international best practice," the chairman of the committee Cecil Burgess, told MPs.

Burgess's declaration that he would not allow debate on the bill to continue forever, but put contentious clauses to vote caught the opposition, which is up against an ANC majority in the committee, by surprise.

"If there is no consensus we will vote on the matter and move on. There is no way we are going to have 100 percent consensus on everything," he said.

He rejected a call by the Democratic Alliance for further discussion on a clause stating that all organs of state had the right to classify information.

If organ of state is defined as in the constitution, this would give 1001 entities, ranging from government departments to state theatres and zoos, the power to classify.

DA MP Dene Smuts said the provision flouted the constitutional requirement for transparency.

"Surely it is a drafting mistake," she said. "The blanket application is what makes the bill unconstitutional because it cultivates opacity and that leads to an abuse of power." Burgess replied that the committee had been assured by the state law advisor that the bill would pass constitutional muster.

Maynier said that before the recess the ANC had seemed amenable to discussion on this point too.

The meeting ended after opposition parties protested that they had not yet had not had insight into the amendments the ANC were putting to the vote, and felt the party's MPs could not substantiate.

Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani Ambrosini said the MPs on the other side of the floor did not seem up to dealing with the issues at hand.

"The ANC MPs seem to lack the understanding to deal with a bill of this complexity," he said.

The ANC agreed to provide the opposition with a full list of its proposals on Wednesday, before work on the bill continues on Thursday.

All opposition parties said there was a need for further debate on key parts of the bill and accused Burgess of failing to understand normal parliamentary process for finalising legislation.

Steve Swart, from the African Christian Democratic Party, said it was not acceptable to vote on individual clauses before considering the overall implication of proposed amendments for a bill as a whole.

The Democratic Alliance's Smuts agreed, saying: "Voting comes right at the end. First we seek wisdom and talk to each other." Allison Tilley from the Right to Know campaign described the handling of the bill as "the most chaotic process I have seen".

"Voting comes at the end, after you have considered all the implications. And when you vote, you begin by looking at the definitions, otherwise you do not know what you are legislating," she said.

Tilley was referring to the definition of organs of state, which would crucially determine the scope of the bill.

Deadlines for finalising the bill have come and gone since last year, when the wide powers the bill seeks to give the state to classify information sparked a national outcry.

It was widely condemned as an attempt to muzzle the media and curtail criticism of the government.

In response, the government agreed to remove provisions allowing for information to be classified in the "national interest" or for commercial information to be kept secret.

But critics believe the bill remains unconstitutional and if passed in its current form, it is likely to be challenged in court.

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