S.Africa ruling party backs down on restrictive info bill
South Africa's ruling party agreed Friday to revise a controversial bill that has been slammed by media watchdogs for giving the government broad new powers to classify information.
The Protection of Information Bill, introduced in parliament last year by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), currently proposes allowing any government body to classify information, and would punish leaks with mandatory prison time of up to 25 years.
The sweeping new secrecy measures have earned the draft law the nickname “protection of information from investigative journalism” bill among opponents, who accuse the ANC of seeking to muzzle whistleblowers and the media.
But the legislator leading the ANC’s arguments on the bill said Friday the party would revise it to scrap mandatory prison sentences and limit new secrecy powers to bodies dealing directly with security.
“We believe, and this is a formal proposal from the ANC, that the scope of application of the bill must be drastically reduced insofar as it applies to the authority to classify information,” Luwellyn Landers told the committee debating the bill.
“We are concerned about the possible abuse of the provisions of this act for the purposes of hiding corrupt activities.”
Landers said the ANC’s national executive had ordered lawmakers to go back to the drawing board.
The bill, which had been compared to apartheid-era secrecy laws, threatened to tarnish the ANC’s image as the party that led the country to democracy.
Opposition lawmakers welcomed the ANC’s change of heart, but said it had not gone far enough.
“The definition of national security, which forms the basis for all classification, has yet to be resolved. The intelligence services, more than any other organ of state, must not be allowed to classify information safely beyond scrutiny,” said Dene Smuts of the main opposition Democratic Alliance.
The ANC has had a fraught relationship with the media in recent months.
The party is also pushing to create a “media appeals tribunal” to hear complaints against the press and punish bad reporting — a proposal that has come under fire from media watchdogs.