S.Africa's ANC shelves secrecy bill amid outcry
South Africa's ruling African National Congress on Monday shelved a controversial secrecy bill after a widespread outcry that it would muzzle investigations into government wrongdoing.
"There are still interested parties who need further hearing, as well as other parties who have made late submissions," ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga told journalists, saying this was despite "extensive consultations and improvements".
"The ANC is of the view that these voices should be heard. The ANC caucus has therefore decided not to table the bill tomorrow (Tuesday) to allow parliament to engage further."
The backtrack came on the eve of a parliamentary debate where the ANC was expected to use its majority to vote to turn the Protection of State Information Bill into law and amid increasing pressure from critics.
Activists and media groups feared the legislation would stifle whistleblowers and investigative journalists who possessed or disclosed classified material with jail terms of up to 25 years.
Mounting public opposition saw a march in Cape Town and night vigils planned with more than 55,000 people signing a petition calling for the bill to be rejected.
"It's clear people power is working. Thousands of people marched and we see a backdown," Murray Hunter, national coordinator of the Right 2 Know campaign which is fighting the bill, told AFP after the party's announcement.
"Until we see substantial change in the bill, our concerns remain," he added.
The bill cleared a committee vote earlier this month but the ANC was slammed for refusing to include a public interest defence clause where possession or release of classified material could be argued to be in society's best interest.
"We are not tabling the bill tomorrow because we genuinely want the people to have their final say before we finalise it," Motshekga told journalists.
But he ruled out any possibility of the bill being binned and said the ANC is satisfied with the draft which was overhauled after being sent back for reworking which saw sweeping classification powers narrowed.
"Nothing is going to be scrapped and we are not starting anything afresh," said Motshekga.
The party aims to wrap up the latest delay by the end of the year. The the bill has crawled through parliament since the first version was submitted in 2008. It has already undergone 123 amendments.
The chair of a special committee which met 65 times on the bill, Cecil Burgess said concerns over the exclusion of a public interest defence had led to the ANC's announcement.
But he said the party's position was unchanged unless it was convinced otherwise.
"Had it not been for the public interest defence, we would not be sitting here," he admitted.
"It's because we cannot find a legal basis, we cannot see how the bill will survive with that public interest defence," adding that the bill was not to target the media.
© 2011 AFP