Civil society organisations and opposition parties and have welcomed the ANC’s move to make amendments to the contentious Protection of State Information Bill, with such developments highlighting the importance of public participation.
In response to widespread objection to the proposed legislation, the National Council of Provinces ad hoc committee dealing with the Bill met on 29 August to discuss proposed amendments.
Among those proposed, after Wednesday’s deliberations, was to delete the section 49 clause which would prohibit the disclosure of information relating to any state security matter. This clause called for tough penalties including imprisonment for up to 15 years for the disclosure, receipt and possession of information relating to the Department of State Security.
Critics of the section 49 clause, including Cosatu, warned that South Africa would be turned into a “security state” under the veil of secrecy.
Secondly, the ruling party removed a line that would have made the Bill trump the Promotion of Access to Information Act, a sub-clause widely branded as unconstitutional by organisations such as Freedom Under Law and Cosatu.
Thirdly, the ANC dumped the provision that would have given municipalities the power to classify information.
Right2Know, a campaign launched in 2010 as a coalition of organisations and people opposed the Info Bill, has welcomed the move, but warn that critical issues remain like public interest defence that’s too limited.
Right2Know has also raised concerns on how the discussions around the amendments were conducted, saying that it’s worrying that the amendments appear to be a result of closed-door meetings between political parties that excluded the public.
“No documents have been made public and even though there is the appearance of progress there is nothing in writing,” the organisation’s website said. “It is vital that these deliberations be open and fully transparent. We will continue to fight for a just and constitutional law that promotes declassification and openness over classification and secrecy.”
During the public hearings on the Info Bill earlier this year, Corruption Watch added its voice to the opposition, stating that the proposed legislation would further instil a fear of reporting corruption, thus eroding public trust in state institutions.
While the Bill’s purpose was to defend national security, the greatest threats and dangers confronting South Africa today were poverty, inequality, unemployment and corruption, the organisation said at the time.
Commenting on this week’s developments, Corruption Watch executive director David Lewis said: “These are positive developments and they signify the importance of public participation. In the end, when this Bill is finalised, we would like to see it accompanied by a massive public education campaign to ensure that it is never indirectly used to inhibit information on corruption.”