This month Minister of State Security David Mahlobo announced that he was in “advanced stages” of drafting regulations for the Protection of State Information Bill. The regulations – which set the foundation for the bill to be implemented once signed into law – have renewed fears from civil society that the contentious bill may soon become a law. Under the proposed law, anyone found guilty of publishing or possessing “classified information” (information relating to matters of state security) may face a maximum of 25 years in prison.
“We have taken a long time to draft the regulations ourselves,” Mahlobo told the City Press recently. They are at an advanced stage now. They should be finalised soon,” he continued. He further added that the bill was “a good law” and that the regulation of state information is practiced all over the world.
Right2Know, a campaign made up of close to 400 civil society groups, ha criticised the plans to introduce the bill into law. The campaign, which was launched in 2010 in response to the proposed law, has urged for the bill to be sent back to parliament. “R2K is dismayed at reported comments of the Minister of State Security, praising the ‘Secrecy Bill’ and recommitting government to its anti-democratic provisions,” they said in a statement. “Given the Presidency’s silence on the Secrecy Bill in the past 18 months, it would have been fair to assume that government had effectively rejected the draconian Bill. We welcome this admission of the Bill’s fatal flaws – the right thing to do is to either send it back to Parliament to start afresh, or to refer it directly to the Constitutional Court,” they went on to say.
State interest vs public interest
In 2010, the bill was introduced in Parliament to immediate scrutiny by both civil society and opposition parties. The bill’s biggest area of contention is that it doesn’t protect whistle-blowers and journalists who leak information for the greater good of the public. For example, say a member of the public were to leak the Spy Tapes to the press, both the journalist and whistle-blower would potentially face jail time. Despite the fact the said information was in relation to government corruption. This is especially problematic when you take into account that freedom of information is a constitutional right. Section 32 of the Constitution reads: “Everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state; and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.”
Mahlobo insists that while access to information is a legitimate right, it comes with responsibilities. “It’s like people wake up everyday thinking these rights have no limits,” he concluded his interview with the City Press.
What needs to happen for the bill to become a law?
Not much, really. All it would take is the stroke of a pen by President Zuma and the Bill would officially be a law. Having been debated in the National Assembly, opened up for public comment and voted in by parliament, the bill ticks all the boxes required to pass a law. The decision now lies solely in the hands of the President to decide on the future of press freedom in South Africa.
To find out how a bill becomes a law, head over here.
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