Protesters in Capetown decry secrecy bill. (Independent Newspapers Cape)
Protesters in Capetown decry secrecy bill. (Independent Newspapers Cape)

South Africa resumes debate on secrecy bill

Parliamentary hearings on South Africa’s Protection of Information Bill resumed last week with heated debate over provisions threatening to restrict press freedom and access to information. For journalists, much uncertainty remains over the final product and when it will be completed.

The bill, introduced in March 2010, would supplant South Africa’s 1982 Protection of Information Act and regulate the manner in which government guards information. The original draft was drawn up by the Ministry of State Security in 2008 with the aim of regulating procedures for the classification of information and setting out penalties for the disclosure of secret state data. That same year, the draft legislation was rejected by a ministerial committee, which found the bill could lead to excessive government secrecy.

The measure has since been amended, but critics say many of their original concerns remain. They contest, for example, the inability of investigative journalists to raise public interest as a defense in disclosing confidential documents, the draconian prison sentences of three to 25 years, and the absence of independent oversight of classification.

Mondli Makhanye, chairman of the South African National Editors’ Forum, told CPJ he doubted the hearings would be completed soon. He said parliament would sit for a short time only before adjourning for local government elections. Although a date for the elections has yet to be announced, they must be held 90 days after the terms of the present local councils expire on March 1. “I think it will be the end of the year before the hearings are completed and the final bill is presented to the National Assembly for approval,” Makhanye said.

This view was confirmed by Cecil Burgess, chairman of the special parliamentary committee dealing with the bill. Burgess told CPJ that the ruling African National Congress would not rush the bill through parliament. However, he said, the term of the ad hoc committee on the Protection of Information Bill was due to end on January 28, leaving the committee with less than two weeks to address public opposition. Burgess said if the committee had not completed its work by the deadline, the National Assembly might extend the panel’s term.

Dene Smuts, a spokeswoman for the opposition Democratic Alliance, told CPJ her party believes parliament should give the committee the rest of the year to finalize the legislation and should not apply unreasonable deadlines. “We believe that because of the importance of the legislation, it should be processed slowly and carefully and not hurried along,” said Smuts. 

The bill has drawn strong domestic and international opposition. In a November 2010 letter to the parliamentary committee, Sipho Mthathi, South Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said the bill “threatens free speech, transparency, accountability and in fact South Africa’s democracy.” He urged the committee to adhere to the 1995 Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression, and Access to Information, which call for national security laws to be unambiguous and drawn narrowly to protect a legitimate security interests.