S.Africa edges closer to controversial secrecy law

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South Africa's controversial secrecy bill, slammed as an attack on media freedoms, cleared a committee vote Monday, setting the stage for the full parliament to approve it.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) used its majority to push through the Protection of State Information Bill without a broad whistleblower clause or a public interest defence which activists fear will hinder investigations into wrongdoing.

"The vote is accordingly carried. The bill shall be referred to the house," said committee chairman Cecil Burgess.

The bill was overhauled from a draconian earlier draft with sweeping powers to classify information which drew comparisons with apartheid-era secrecy laws.

But fears remain over tough penalties ranging from a fine to up to five years in prison for failing to report possession of classified information and up to 25 years for acts deemed as espionage.

Activists have threatened to go to the Constitutional Court if President Jacob Zuma signs the bill into law, and the opposition has said it plans to petition for him to send it back to parliament.

"In its current form, there's clearly an appetite to take it to court," said Murray Hunter of the Right2Know campaign, a coalition fighting the bill.

The bill will go to the national assembly later this month, followed by a vote in the lower house, before going to Zuma's desk.

South Africa dropped five places on the latest press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders, which cited the bill and plans by the ruling party for a media tribunal to punish bad reporting.

© 2011 AFP

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