On 24 May 2011 the ad-hoc Parliamentary Committee dealing with the Protection of Information Bill – the Secrecy Bill – will begin meeting again, in what appears to be the final countdown for the Secrecy Bill. The ANC has indicated that it would like for the Bill to be finalised by 24 June 2011. On Friday morning the chairperson, ANC MP Cecil Burgess, is quoted as saying, “Members of the committee are very clear on where they stand. I see no reason why the Bill cannot be finalised by the specified time.” (‘Can ANC save the Secrecy Bill?’, Mail & Guardian, 20 May 2011)
At the Right 2 Know campaign we strongly protest this projected course of action because:
- Under such severe time constraints it will be impossible for there to be meaningful input by those political parties, civil society organisations and members of the public who oppose the present version of the Bill.
- Given the ANC’s insistence to push the Bill through the parliamentary process as quickly as possible, the objections and proposals which the Right 2 Know Campaign has raised about the Bill have not yet been addressed.
- From among the seven demands for amendments to the Bill, made by the Right 2 Know campaign, only the clauses pertaining to commercial information have been removed from the Bill. None of the other six points (listed below) has been addressed to date.
The Secrecy Bill continues to pose a threat to the democratic ideals and practice of transparency and the free flow of and access to, information. As things stand, officials at every level of government would be able to classify information as secret, opening the door for potentially massive abuse of the classification system and a return to the dark days of a secretive state. The effects on transparency and accountability would be disastrous for the government’s ability to deliver on services.
Further, the Bill provides only the narrowest protection for whistleblowers, and will criminalise possession and distribution of classified information even if it is clearly in the public’s interest to know the contents: in such circumstances journalists, activists and even ordinary citizens stand to face prison sentences, which will not only encourage self-censorship of the media but also discourage whistle-blowing. Such a veil of secrecy stands to prevent meaningful public scrutiny and accountability not only of the intelligence services, but of all organs of the state.
In light of the above, we again call on the ANC to abandon its efforts to pass the Bill in its current form and to withdraw the Bill to be redrafted from scratch, with proper public participation. As the Right2Know Campaign, we will continue our struggle, alongside our supporters and sympathisers across the country to ensure that any Bill reflects the following:
- Limit secrecy to core state bodies in the security sector such as the police, defence and intelligence agencies.
- Limit secrecy to strictly defined national security matters and no more. Officials must give reasons for making information secret.
- Do not exempt the intelligence agencies from public scrutiny.
- Do not apply penalties for unauthorised disclosure to society at large, only those responsible for keeping secrets.
- An independent body appointed by Parliament, and not the Minister of State Security, should be the arbiter of decisions about what may be made secret.
- Do not criminalise the legitimate disclosure of secrets in the public interest.
For further comment contact:
R2K Gauteng spokesperson
072 429 4086 and email@example.com
R2K Western Cape spokesperson
078 227 6008 and firstname.lastname@example.org
R2K KwaZulu Natal spokesperson
083 871 7549 and email@example.com
R2K National coordinator
072 672 5468 and firstname.lastname@example.org