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IPI concerned that information bill may impede flow of news

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 22 July 2010 - As parliamentary hearings on the Protection of Information Bill begin in South Africa today, the International Press Institute expressed its concern over many of the provisions contained in the draft legislation, arguing that they should explicitly take into account journalists acting in the public interest.

The original draft of the Protection of Information Bill is designed to regulate the classification procedures and also sets out penalties for disclosing confidential or secret state information. The bill was originated by the ministry of state security two years ago, but was rejected in 2008 by a ministerial committee, which said the bill could lead to excessive government secrecy.

The bill has since been amended, but critics say that many of the original criticisms were ignored in the new version of the bill and that the current version may have an even more chilling effect on the media.

While the bill acknowledges the "harm of excessive secrecy" in its preamble, and states that its aim is to "promote the free flow of information within an open and democratic society," it also sets a very low threshold for classification and imposes draconian penalties for those who reveal classified information, without providing for a public interest defence.

The bill permits the heads of state organs to classify information if they deem that its disclosure could harm the "national interest of the Republic." But the "national interest" is defined broadly to include "all matters relating to the advancement of the public good" as well as "all matters relating to the protection and preservation of all things owned or maintained for the public by the State." It specifically includes "the pursuit of justice, democracy, economic growth, free trade, a stable monetary system and sound international relations." This broad definition has led to concerns that information about almost any matter of state could be classified.

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