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Concerns mount about parliament's rush to pass Protection of Information Bill

(MISA/IFEX) - 15 June 2011 - The rush to complete the Protection of Information Bill by the parliamentary committee has sparked public outcry in South Africa with many raising concerns that the law will lead to huge problems and unnecessary tensions in the future. Among those voicing their critical view against the Bill is former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils.

In a letter to the South African Press Association (SAPA), Kasrils emphasized that the Bill "will certainly undermine public trust in the intelligence and security services at a time when confidence needs to be built". "Even at this late stage, one would remind our legislators of the adage, 'more haste less speed'," he said.

The report by SAPA stressed that the issues under discussion were complex and sensitive and it was necessary to ensure that the proposed legislation did not undermine the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Discussions at the parliamentary committee stage so far had not inspired public confidence that the issues had been sufficiently canvassed and considered.

"All agree that the outdated 1982 Act must be repealed and that a democratic state has the need to protect sensitive state secrets. To this end it is noteworthy that the bill recognises the harm of excessive secrecy," Kasrils said.

However, it was of concern that the proposed legislation was excessively broad and unfocused. Many South Africans felt the Bill is extremely harsh, and that parliamentary debates on the Bill have so far ignored the crucial need for a "public interest". They argue that the public should be allowed to gain access on a "public interest" argument as a successful way of the media uncovering government incompetence where it might occur. In any democratic society worthy of the name there needs to be a clear understanding that the government has no right to limit media coverage of stories that are embarrassing - or in the end shown to be only partly true. This is why a "public interest" defence is so crucial to any such security legislation.

A society where the poor are cheated by the powerful, the wealthy or the officials who squander the public purse or who fail in service delivery - can only be supported by a free press, by investigative journalism and research by lively civic organisations.

A pertinent aim of this legislation, from its original conception, had been the creation of a system to enable the declassification of masses of government documentation. The system envisaged was so complicated and so hampered by lack of clarity that the government would be creating a bureaucratic nightmare. This will act as a regression both from the public's right to access information and to freedom of expression.

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