Secrecy bill not to target the media: S.African minister

16th November 2011, Comments 0 comments

South Africa's free press is not the target of a controversial new secrecy bill that critics fear could prevent exposure of official wrongdoing, the state security minister said Wednesday.

"This bill is not about regulating the media. There is no single mention of the media in this bill," Siyabonga Cwele told parliament.

"Neither is this bill about covering up corruption," he added.

Media groups, watchdogs and opposition lawmakers have condemned the Protection of State Information Bill saying it could silence whistleblowing and investigative reporting.

The bill, of passed, would make it illegal to hold or disclose sensitive information, with jail terms of up to 25 years.

Changes to the bill after a public outcry had been "a correct response to the concerns," Cwele said.

The legislation was intended to overhaul outdated apartheid law and address threats of espionage, he added.

But Cwele ruled out a public interest defence that would protect disclosure of classified information if a court deemed it to be in society's best interest.

"The fact is that the 'secrecy bill' amounts to a full-scale legislative assault on the freedom of the press and other media in South Africa," said lawmaker David Maynier of the main opposition Democratic Alliance.

The bill criminalises the possession and disclosure of classified material even if the documents expose wrongdoing and if exposure would serve the public interest, he said.

"So the question is not whether journalists will go to jail, but which journalist will go to jail first," he added.

The bill is expected to be put to the vote next week after the ruling African National Congress held back in September, saying more time was needed for input.

However the Right 2 Know campaign, which opposes the bill, said this week that "no public consultations have been conducted" and that promises by the ANC chief whip had been "utterly empty".

© 2011 AFP

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