Addressing members of the parliamentary press gallery on the 12th September 2013, president Jacob Zuma expressed reservations over certain sections of the Protection of State Information Bill (secrecy bill) and referred the controversial Bill back to parliament for reconsideration.
Section 79 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa allows the president to refer a Bill back to parliament for reconsideration should the president have ‘reservations about the constitutionality of the Bill’, (Constitution RSA, 1996).
In a press release issued by parliament on the 12 September 2013, the National Assembly (NA) approved the establishment of an ad-hoc committee to consider and report on Zuma’s reservations about the Bill by the 31 October 2013, with particular reference to Section 42 (Failure to report possession of classified information) and Section 45 (Improper classification of Information).
Since the Bill was first introduced in parliament both Cosatu and Numsa have publicly voiced their opposition to the ‘secrecy bill’ and have repeatedly called on the legislature to consider the impact of the Bill on the constitutional rights of citizens to access and disseminate information that has public relevance.
In particular Cosatu has called on parliament to ‘re-examine the problematic clauses of the Bill which could conflict with Clause 16 of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights’ and take on board the ‘genuine concerns from civil society that the provisions of the bill could be abused to cover up crime, corruption and misuse of funds by allowing officials to classify the evidence of this as secret’ (Cosatu press statement, 3 June 2011).
In welcoming the president’s decision to refer the Bill back to the NA organisers from the Right2Know (R2Know) campaign and the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) have reaffirmed their opposition to the Bill and highlighted many of the shortcomings in the Bill in addition to the ones raised by the president.
According to the R2Know (2013) these could be summed up as follows: Ensure a full Public Interest Defence. The current Secrecy Bill only has narrow protection for whistleblowers and public advocates that excludes arrange of matters in the public interest like shady tendering practices or improper appointments within key state agencies.
Ensure full whistleblower protection. Under the current Secrecy Bill a whistleblower, journalist or activist who discloses a classified record with the purpose of revealing corruption or other criminal activity may be prosecuted under the “espionage” and other offences not covered by the proposed Public Interest Defence.
Don’t criminalise the public as spies. In the current Secrecy Bill people can be charged with “espionage”, “receiving state information unlawfully” (to benefit a foreign state), and “hostile activity” without proof that the accused intended to benefit a foreign state or hostile group or prejudice the national security; only that the accused knew or “ought reasonably to have known” that this would be a “direct or indirect” result.
Numsa News will continue to monitor progress on the Bill and the work of the ad-hoc committee appointed by the NA to re-examine the clauses in the Bill that could potentially undermine the constitution of the country.