Two years ago, former Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils introduced a new Bill to classify sensitive state information and penalise its unauthorised disclosure.
The Mail & Guardian believed the legislation was dangerously misguided -- and said so in its columns and in a submission to parliament.
The Bill was provisionally withdrawn, a reponse both to some clumsy drafting and Kasrils' waning fortunes. But now it's back -- and the new draft issued by the Ministry of State Security is in some ways even worse. The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism is taking up the fight.
Like its predecessor, the new version of the Bill will make journalists' job of exposing corruption and incompetence that much harder -- because it will make it easy for a wide range of information to be kept secret in the "national interest".
Most of the criticisms the M&G made before are still valid and bear repeating. In its oral submission to parliament, it said:
Both democracy and the media need and rely on the free flow of information, and, perhaps especially, sensitive information.
This Bill will have an unwarranted and restrictive effect on the flow of information in several key ways.
In essence, the Bill gives the right to classify information to every head of an "organ of state", from the Minister of State Security all the way down to the municipal manager of Blikkiesdorp.
The Bill will open the way for restrictions on the disclosure of commercial information too, at all levels of government. This will impact negatively on competitiveness and accountability in tendering and other government business.
The classifcation methods are subjective and self-applied; there is no independent monitoring or appeal process.
Challenging classifications through the courts will be expensive and time-consuming -- and is likely to have little impact on weaknesses in the overall classification system.
The Bill penalises unauthorised possession or disclosure of classified records, even if there is no intent to prejudice the national interest;
It makes members of the public or journalists as liable as those who abuse their authorised access to disclose classified information. The possessor and the publisher are as guilty as the "leaker".
There are harsh penalties -- up to 25 years in jail -- attached to relatively low levels of potential harm to the national interest.
Finally, the strong submissions from the media calling for an exemption protecting unauthorised disclosure that is done "in the public interest" have been ignored.
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism will be raising its concerns when the Bill is considered by parliament. Please add your voices.
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