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  • Secrecy Bill: Parly, police and R2K

    What do you do when you have less than three months before the next "final" deadline for the controversial Protection of Information Bill?

    What do you do when you have less than three months before the next "final" deadline for the controversial Protection of Information Bill?

What do you do when you have less than three months before the next "final" deadline for the controversial Protection of Information Bill (Secrecy Bill)?



For one thing you can make sure no one throws a spanner in the works, and you can use the police to do it.



This is what happened to nine Right2Know (R2K) activists on Tuesday last week, when they tried to attend a meeting of the ad hoc committee on the Bill.



The activists were told they were "banned" when they tried to register to enter Parliament, without any reasons proffered.



They were then "guarded" by members of the South African Police Service (SAPS), who appeared to be consulting some MPs by phone.



By the end of the week, the R2K had no clarity on why, or from where the directives to the police had emanated, although Parliament released a statement saying it had taken "precautionary security action".



But the activists were let into the following meeting of the ad hoc committee, on Friday, April 1.



Tuesday's encounter left R2K activists bemused and stunned. Shireen Mukadam, for instance, told the Mail & Guardian: "It was a terrible experience. We were made to feel like -criminals, without knowing what we were accused of."



She recorded the incident on video and was asked by a policewoman to delete the footage.



She did not.



The R2K campaign, committed to the free flow of information, was launched in August last year.



About 400 organisations and more than 12000 individuals have signed up in support of more transparency and less secrecy.



The Bill, as it stands, allows for just about any organ of state to declare classified just about any document.



There is no public-interest defence.



The ad hoc committee appears to be under pressure to meet the new deadline for the Bill: June 24.



R2K has condemned the action to ban it as unconstitutional.



The decision to deny civil society access to Parliament was arbitrary and seems to fly in the face of speaker of Parliament, Max Sisulu's, recent reiteration that portfolio committee meetings should be open to the public.



And so, with this in mind, R2K wrote a letter to Sisulu asking why its members were refused access.



The letter asks for clarity, given that the Constitution provides public access to and involvement in the National Assembly. The National Assembly may not exclude the public, including the media, from a sitting of a committee unless it is reasonable and justifiable to do so in an open and democratic society.



The activists were eventually let in on Tuesday, after a two-hour wait, but the ad hoc committee meeting was over.



Some members of the committee were sympathetic to the activists. For example the Inkatha Freedom Party's Mario Oriani-Ambrosini told me he found the whole action "absurd" and "overzealous", especially in view of the huge crime problem in the country.



At any given time there are about 200 police in Parliament, opening and closing doors, and now this: taking down names.



It seems as though the decision to ban the R2K from the ad hoc committee was arbitrary and sinister.



First, it is worrying that civil society's involvement in what happens to the Secrecy Bill in Parliament can be stopped by police and second, it seems to fit into a context in which the police's actions are becoming more and more gung ho and out of sync with the more gentle and civilised Constitution.



Meanwhile, what is really happening with the Secrecy Bill? What is the June 24 deadline about? What it means is that by this date, the ad hoc committee could say:



 




  • the Bill is finalised and ready to be passed or enacted;



  • it needs more time;



  • it rejects the Bill;



  • there have been enough extensions and opposition parties and civil society have had their chance to make their input.



 



Any of the above could happen.



It could also forge ahead with whatever it wants to do.



Just as long as there aren't too many spanners in the works.



The next meeting of the Secrecy Bill ad hoc committee is on April 15, when the Bill is expected to be tackled clause by clause.



Watch this space; watch out particularly for police intervention, arbitrary or sinister.



Glenda Daniels is a member of R2K's national working group



 



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