ANC Postpones Debate on Protection of Information Bill | Freedom House

ANC Postpones Debate on Protection of Information Bill

The African National Congress (ANC) will reschedule its September 20 debate on the Protection of Information Bill to next quarter due to public outcry and accusations that the legislation threatens freedom of expression. The ANC is divided on the bill and plans to consult with groups against the bill before resuming debate—the groups hope to rewrite the bill, which has no “public interest defense,” threatening journalists who disclose protected information. The Protection of Information Bill would regulate the distribution of state information, “weighing state interests against transparency and freedom of expression.”   On August 31, the ANC told a special committee that it would not add a clause to protect the public interest, because it did not consider journalists a separate class.

The Protection of Information Bill, put forward by the Ministry of Intelligence and currently under consideration by the South African parliament, is a revised version of a bill initially submitted in 2008, which was rejected due to concerns it would lead to excessive official secrecy.  Several provisions in the bill are cause for serious concern, including an overly broad definition of “national interest” concerning classifying information and heavy penalties of up to 25 years in prison for the publication or dissemination of official or classified information. Additionally, those seeking to access or declassify information face several obstacles, including bearing the burden of proof that public interest outweighs national security concerns. The proposed bill represents a further threat in an environment where media freedom has eroded in recent years. In Freedom of the Press 2010, Freedom House’s annual press freedom index, South Africa was downgraded from Free to Partly Free to reflect negative developments, including increased negative rhetoric against the press by top government officials, encroachments on the independence of the national broadcaster, and the passage of the Film and Publications Act in 2009.

Freedom House commends the decision by the ANC to postpone debate, and calls on parliament to amend the bill with the help of civil society groups and other stakeholders to remove problematic elements that threaten media freedom and freedom of expression.
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