Black Tuesday and the Secrecy Bill

I realise this is not something I generally blog about, but this is my blog and I’ll post what I like on it.
Yesterday the 22 November 2011, which has been nicknamed “Black Tuesday”, the South African Parliament voted to pass a flawed and almost certainly unconstitutional Bill: the so-called “Protection of State Information” Bill. Every single member of the Opposition voted against it, yet the ANC had a sufficient majority to pass it. The Bill needs to be placed before the National Council of Provinces to be reviewed, and then it can be signed into law.
The Bill has a strange history. It was first introduced to Parliament in 2008 by the then Minister of State Security, Ronnie Kasrils. The intention was to replace a piece of apartheid-era legislation. Then it was withdrawn. A few months ago, a new version was tabled. After initial strong criticism, the ANC removed the Bill and announced it would hold public consultations to discuss it. Suddenly, a few days ago, the consultations were ended and the Bill retabled, and voted on. It is this version that has been passed.
The new Bill has received near-universal condemnation. Ronnie Kasrils, the aforementioned former state security minister who was instrumental in drafting the original Bill, has been damning. The late Kader Asmal, a former minister of education, also criticised the Bill. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting apartheid, has warned against the Bill. Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), an alliance partner of the ANC, has strongly argued against the Bill. SAMWU (the South African Municipal Workers Union) has claimed that under this Bill, its members who have exposed corruption would be liable for prosecution. SANEF, (the South African News Editors’ Forum) which represents the media, has claimed that the Bill would make investigative journalism near impossible. Right2Know, a civic movement for openness in government, has stated that the Bill is counter to transparency.
The Bill was written to protect state secrets. According to its provisions, anyone who comes into the possession of classified information must hand said information in. Anyone who learns of classified information being leaked must report the breach. Penalties for breaking the law go up to 25 years.
All of the Bill’s critics are worried that information revealing criminal behaviour or gross incompetence may be classified to protect the guilty. There have been calls to introduce a “Public Interest” defence. Under this defence, a person who leaks confidential information that was classified to hide wrongdoing could argue that the leaking was done to benefit the public. Many believe that the Bill currently has inadequate safeguards against such malicious actions. SAMWU has been very vocal in this regard.
The ANC, which is the ruling party in South Africa, has totally (some would say wilfully) ignored the criticisms. It has responded in a ludicrous fashion. Siyabonga Cwele, the current Minister of State Security, has claimed that “foreign agents” have funded “proxies” to attack the Bill. He has offered no evidence in support of this slanderous allegation. It has also stated that no other country has such a defence. This is actually a lie, as Section 15 of Canada’s Security of Information Act 1985 permits the release of even high security information in the public good. The UK has a Whistleblowers’ Act that can, in certain circumstances, override even the Official Secrets Act. Finally, Lluwellyn Landers, who chaired the committee on the Bill, has said that a Public Interest defence would result in mass leaks of classified data, an argument so preposterous it is difficult to believe that anyone would make it. Yesterday, every ANC MP was summoned to parliament and warned to vote along party lines or face the consequences.
The Opposition Political parties have been united and unanimous in their hostility towards this Bill. Lindiwe Mazibuko, who is the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance, has said that the DA will take the fight to the Constitutional Court if necessary. If the fight goes that far, it is near certain that the Bill will be struck down either in part or in whole.
This Bill is puzzling. Such a bad, and universally condemned, piece of legislation, would typically have been extensively rewritten, or redrafted in its entirety. Why was this Bill passed in the teeth of near-universal opposition? And why did the ANC demand that its MP’s vote along party lines?

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I am a Software Test Analyst. Shortly before I turned 21 I was officially diagnosed, although I had long suspected I was autistic. Welcome to my blog
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