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New parliament debate opens on S.African secrecy bill

A South African parliamentary committee Tuesday opened debate on a proposed state secrets bill, after months of public hearings that raised alarms it could muzzle whistle-blowers and journalists.

A committee in the upper house of parliament began four days of debate on the Protection of State Information Bill, strongly backed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) which has a huge legislative majority.

Committee chairman Raseriti Tau of the ANC said the bill aimed to protect South Africa’s “constitutional order”.

“Why would we have a problem in the process of legislating if there’s anything … that seeks to defend that constitutional order?” he said.

The lower house approved the bill in November despite an outcry from civil society, including Nelson Mandela’s foundation, and even the government alliance partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Opposition to the bill has been rallied by the Right2Know Campaign, which argues the proposed law fails to balance legitimate needs for state secrets with the public’s right to information.

“This law goes overboard in the powers it gives (government) to create secrets and prevent information reaching the public,” Hunter said.

“The foundation of South Africa’s constitution is openness and accountability. We believe a law that promotes excessive secrecy and shuts citizens out of government processes undermines that constitution.”

Critics fear the bill will undermine the fight against corruption by making it more difficult for whistle-blowers or journalists to expose wrongdoing.

Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer last week condemned the bill as an updated version of “the suppression of freedom of expression that gagged us under apartheid”.

If the bill is approved by the upper house, anyone found in possession of classified information could face jail time — including journalists and whistle-blowers.

Press groups say the bill should include a public-interest defence, if the revelation was made for the national good.