19 September 2011

South Africa: ANC Pulls Back Info Bill

Cape Town — The ANC postponed Parliament's vote on the Protection of State Information Bill at the eleventh hour on Monday for further consultation, but said the legislation would be finalised by the end of the year.

Ruling party chief whip Mathole Motshekga said the decision was made because interest groups, which he declined to name, had asked for another chance to make input on the state secrets legislation.

"If we have sections of society saying they still need to be heard... we have to listen to them.

"Even over this weekend, people were marching. Our view is that the door of this Parliament, of the ANC, is open. We are ready to listen to the people at all times," he told reporters after an ANC caucus meeting, referring to a protest against the bill on Saturday.

"We are not debating this bill tomorrow because we genuinely want the people to have their further say."

Pressed for a timeframe, he said: "By the end of the year, we are going to finalise this bill."

The bill was expected to be passed by the National Assembly on Tuesday, thanks to the ANC's overwhelming majority and despite threats from the opposition, media and rights groups to take it on constitutional review.

The SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) welcomed the decision, saying the bill remained "deeply flawed".

Motshekga strenuously denied media reports that the ANC's national executive committee (NEC) was split over the bill, which critics see as an infringement of freedom of expression.

"I don't know where they get that from. I was at the NEC and the NEC has deployed us to Parliament," he said.

Neither Motshekga, nor Cecil Burgess, who chairs the ad hoc committee that drafted the bill, would say whether the decision to put it on hold came about because of further pressure by the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Burgess told reporters: "Cosatu is family and I don't like to discuss family matters in public."

The trade union federation and ANC alliance partner welcomed the decision, as did the Democratic Alliance and the Right 2 Know Campaign.

"We would welcome the announcement today that the bill has been withdrawn from the house's schedule for debate for further discussion," said Cosatu parliamentary representative Prakashnee Govender.

In May, Cosatu threatened to challenge the legislation in the Constitutional Court, prompting the ANC to announce significant concessions on a bill that has garnered more opposition than any other post-apartheid legislation.

These included limiting the power to classify information to the security and intelligence services and scrapping minimum prison sentences for offenders.

ANC MP Luwellyn Landers conceded on Monday that the issue of increased protection for whistle-blowers, who reveal secret information to expose wrongdoing by the state, had not been settled between the alliance partners.

He said Cosatu wanted the ANC to write a so-called public interest defence into the bill, but that the ANC remained convinced that this flew in the face of international practice.

The defence would allow those charged with revealing classified information and faced with punishment of up to five years in prison to argue that they had acted in the public interest.

Media and the opposition contend that its exclusion makes the bill unconstitutional.

"We have made provision for whistle-blowers and we hear the lie that is being perpetrated out there that there is no provision for whistle-blowers. It is a lie," said Landers.

"Until we are convinced otherwise, our position on the public interest defence has not changed," he said.

Asked for comment, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said he stood by his earlier position that allowing a public interest defence would be "to shred the bill even before it becomes law".

"I have not changed my mind. That is still my view," he told Sapa.

Explaining Cosatu's position, Govender said that including a public interest defence would be one way of balancing the need to protect legitimate state secrets for the sake of national security with the public's right to information.

"For us, it is about finding a balance, whatever the mechanism. A public interest defence is one way of ensuring that you have an override.

"You cannot have a blanket prohibition on disclosure if this means information that should be exposed is suppressed."

Sanef said this was an important opportunity to ensure that the proposed legislation met the standards required in an open and democratic society.

"A law worthy of our democracy cannot criminalise the publication of information that reveals corruption, human rights abuses, or the abuse of state resources for political ends," Sanef said in a statement.

"It must ensure that the grounds of classification are sufficiently narrow to prevent officials from using it to draw a veil of secrecy across the workings of government," it said.

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