South African Minister Rejects Media Bill Criticism

South African State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele dismissed criticism of a draft law to protect state secrets, saying it complies with international standards and is needed to safeguard national security.

The Protection of Information Bill proposes wide-ranging powers for government officials to classify documents, and jail sentences of as long as 25 years for anyone possessing them without authorization. About 300 South African organizations and thousands of individuals have joined the Right2Know campaign, which opposes the bill on the grounds that it would violate constitutional rights to free speech and hobble investigative reporting and efforts to expose corruption.

The law’s critics “are basically of the view that South Africa has no legitimate national security to protect,” Cwele told lawmakers in Cape Town today. “Clearly this is far from the truth. We are legislating for real problems and are not seeking to cover up corruption.”

On Sept. 17, the government agreed to drop provisions in the bill allowing documents to be classified on the basis that they are in the “national interest” or to protect commercial information.

Cwele today rejected calls for further amendments and reiterated his opposition to the inclusion of a clause allowing disclosure of secret information in the public interest. He also dismissed calls for an independent body to oversee appeals against the classification of information.

‘Simply Reckless’

“To allow anyone to put national security information in the public domain with a hope that such action may, in the unlikely event, be deemed to be in the public interest would be simply reckless,” he said. “Conceding to such a demand would be tantamount to shredding this bill even before it becomes law.”

A special parliament committee is currently debating the legislation and will decide whether further changes are necessary. The committee will take all objections to the law into account and ensure it complies with the Constitution, its chairman, Cecil Burgess, said.

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