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S.Africa’s ANC makes concessions on secrecy bill

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress on Thursday agreed to make changes to a controversial secrecy bill to alleviate fears that the legislation will threaten press freedom.

ANC members of an upper house parliamentary committee suggested a compromise public interest defence to protect journalists and whistle-blowers under the Protection of State Information Bill, according to Sapa news agency.

A section of the draft law that criminalises the publication of classified information will not apply when “such disclosure reveals criminal activity”, while another provision which makes it a crime to publish any information about state security will cover only classified information on such matters.

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

The bill was voted through by the lower house in November amid an outcry that it would muzzle whistleblowers and journalists who seek to uncover wrongdoing, and must also be approved by the upper house.

Among the major concerns of the bill’s critics were the harsh penalties of up to 25 years in jail for those convicted and the lack of a public interest defence.

The ANC insists the bill will not target journalists and that it is needed to update apartheid-era secrecy rules, while still respecting current protection for whistleblowers.

Critics of the legislation include journalists and civil society groups, including Nelson Mandela’s foundation, and even the government alliance partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

The two sections that were changed had been harshly criticised by Cosatu.

Advocacy group the Right2Know Campaign however said the bill did not do enough to protect those who exposed state wrongdoing.

“It’s not the public defence that South Africa has been looking for,” the group’s Murray Hunter told the eNews channel.

He added that the changes were “the first step in the right direction but we still have a long way to go.”

The committee’s deadline to debate the bill has been extended until the end of June.