SA Protection of Information Bill gets the nod

SA Protection of Information Bill gets the nod

Date: December 13, 2011
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On Tuesday 22 November 2011, the South Africa’s (SA) African National Congress (ANC) party voted overwhelmingly for its Protection of Information Bill dubbed as Secrecy Bill by critics.

Despite numerous protests that compelled South African National Press Club (NPC) declaring 22 November “Black Tuesday”, the ANC used its majority in parliament to bulldoze the “draconian” bill.

If the bill is ultimately signed into a law, what fate awaits information seekers? Is there any hope? In its current version, the pending law has tough sentences of up to 25 years jail sentence for whistle blowers or anyone possessing what the law deems “classified government documents.” Worryingly, the bill has no “public interest” clause a thing which rules-out a defence of acting in the public interest.

While the law has been viewed by many as a threat to media freedom, experts think that it is beyond this. Wholesomely, technocrats say that the passing of the bill is a blow to SA hard-won democracy.

African Director at Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele said that the bill would “unacceptably curtail the right to access information and freedom of the expression, the foundation of a democratic society.”

Expressing a similar concern, Witwatersrand University said the bill would impede on intellectual enquiry as well. “The university expresses its deep concern at the implications of these measures for civil liberties and the pursuit of intellectual enquiry, and insists that, in their current form they be abandoned,” it noted.

Archbishop Emiritus Desmond Tutu called the bill an “insult to all South Africans” and claimed that the law “will do our people and our country a disservice.”

However, there is hope. The on-going lobbying by civil society groupings might reverse the situation. As per parliamentary procedure, the bill will be taken to upper house of the legislature – the National Council of Provinces, previously known as the Senate. During this period, the bill could be sent back to the lower house for further review and possibly insert the much needed “public interest clause.”

Further, concerned South African citizens, civil society organisations and groups can challenge the bill at the constitutional court, Supreme Court of land before it is made into a law. All these efforts would help review the bill to ensure that it embraces democratic principles.

Ironically, politicians in most developing countries have been known of formulating and coming-up with laws that are contrary to democratic principles. For instance, despite most southern African countries assuring the freedom of the press in their respective constitutions, most of them have got other statutes that directly impinge on the media and information seekers.

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