The ANC caucus on the Protection of State Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill) backtracked on several vital concessions last night. Though in recent weeks and months the ANC proposed a number of amendments to the Secrecy Bill that were viewed as a major advancement, in last night’s late-night meeting the ANC withdrew several key concessions:
- Backtracking on ‘Espionage’ clauses. The ruling party reneged on their promise to remove ‘minimum sentences’ from the Secrecy Bill’s espionage clause 36, thereby forcing the courts to impose mandatory jail sentences of no less than 15 years, and up to 25 years, for offences that are so vaguely drafted that they can still be applied to legitimate acts of whistleblowing and disclosures of classified information that are genuinely in the public interest.
- Watering down whistleblower protection. Those clauses in the Bill that would have provided at least some protection to whistleblowers have once again been watered down. A section that had been amended to ensure that whistleblowers whose acts were protected by existing whistleblower law, including the Protected Disclosures Act, the Companies Act, and “any other law” has been rewritten so that only the Protected Disclosures Act and Companies Act are given such protection (the reference to “any other law” has been deleted). Thus, a law such as the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, which would require a person to report corruption, is now potentially undermined.
We note that the process of closed-door negotiations between political parties has failed the public: commitments made in secret are easy to break. While many of the amendments announced in recent times were rightfully acknowledged as progressive changes, if they are all to be as short-lived as the two mentioned here, members of the “Secrecy Bill” committee can expect intensified opposition from many quarters of South African society as well as further public protests.
As we have said many times before, the committee must stop its rush for the door in trying to finalise the Bill by the end of September – there is too much at stake for all South Africans. We call on its members to heed the voices that have been raised across the breadth and width of our country and to ensure the Bill meets the 7-Point Freedom Test.