Changes to S.Africa secrecy bill draw mixed response
Proposed changes to a controversial South African secrecy bill drew mixed reactions Friday, with some critics complaining that the measures do not go far enough to ease fears about muzzling the press.
Ruling African National Congress (ANC) members of an upper house parliamentary committee suggested a compromise to protect journalists and whistle-blowers who reveal “criminal activity”.
But critics say ANC lawmakers did not go far enough to introduce a full public interest defence clause which opposition parties and civil society groups have long called for.
The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) said it would study the changes to see if they went “far enough to satisfy our serious concerns about the potential negative consequences of the proposed legislation for freedom of information, freedom of speech, and the health of democracy”.
A coalition of over 400 groups and 20,000 individuals known as the Right2Know Campaign which opposed the draft law right from the start says the amendments were insufficient.
The proposed protection was an “improvement”, but “not meaningful until it is extended to all offences contained in the bill,” said the group’s Murray Hunter, noting that some offences still carry a jail term of up to 25 years.
Spy services were still shielded from any exposure “thus, the complete veil of secrecy over the work of spooks remains intact,” he said in a statement.
Opposition Democratic Alliance lawmaker Alf Lees said the amendments “still do not go far enough”.
The ANC insists the bill, which was approved last November by the lower chamber, does not target journalists and that it is needed to update apartheid-era secrecy rules, while still respecting current protection for whistleblowers.
Other leading critics of the legislation include Nelson Mandela’s foundation, and the government alliance partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
The committee’s deadline to debate the bill has been extended until the end of June, when it will return to the lower chamber.