South African president refers information bill to parliament

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Cyril Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa has requested the parliament to reconsider the Protection of State Information Bill (PSIB) based on reservations about its constitutional validity, his office said on Friday.

The president has, in writing, drawn the attention of National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise to constitutional reservations emanating from the bill which has been referred to the president for assent and signing into law, Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko said.

The PSIB, also known as Secrecy Bill, provides for the protection of sensitive state information, a system of classification, reclassification and declassification of state information, the protection of certain valuable state information against alteration, destruction or loss or unlawful disclosure, and regulates the manner in which state information may be protected.

The controversial bill, first submitted to the Presidency in November 2013, has been subjected to serious criticism as being an attempt to limit press freedom and silence whistle blowers against corruption.

The bill has been amended many times, but the version endorsed by parliament still omits a public interest defense, meaning that journalists, whistle blowers and others could be imprisoned for up to 25 years for leaking or sharing information deemed classified by the government and which exposes corruption, mismanagement or malfeasance even in the face of a compelling public interest.

“The president is concerned that certain provisions in the bill are in conflict with Sections 16 and 32 of the Constitution which respectively address the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media, and the right of access to any information held by the state and is required for the exercise,” Diko said in a statement.

The president believes the bill as it stands limits the freedom of the media and everyone else to access or receive and impart information and prohibits people from accessing certain information held by the state, said Diko.

Diko also cited the president’s reservations about the broad nature of some of the definitions in the bill that may fail to provide adequate guidance to officials tasked with taking decisions in terms of the legislation, the spokesperson said.

Furthermore, the president is concerned about deficiencies in the public-interest defence provisions in the Bill, including criminal liability on the part of whistle-blowers who may be in possession of documents that may be wrongly classified to cover up corruption or hide illegalities or maladministration, said Diko.

“The president is of the view that the lack of a public interest defence will create an unjustifiable, chilling effect on the freedom of expression and limitations in this regard could be open to legal challenge on the basis that the limitations are arbitrary and irrational,” Diko said. Enditem

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