By Chantelle Benjamin
Civil society groups yesterday warned that the new version of the Protection of State Information Bill makes access to information more difficult than ever before.
The PAIA Civil Society Network (CSN), consisting of among others the South African History Archive and the Legal Resources Centre, said "despite government's assurance that the bill would not impact on citizens' right to information under the Promotion of Access to Information Bill (PAIA), the final version of the bill substantially restricts the constitutional right to information protected under the PAIA".
This version also placed no restrictions on how long the government could take to deal with requests, which would delay an already cumbersome process, they warned.
Critics like the CSN, which is also made up of the Open Democracy Advice Centre, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African Litigation Centre, argue that the bill, which has been on the table since last year, will affect not only the media's access to documents, but civil society, academia and the public.
CSN said there was already adequate protection of records containing issues of national security, defence and international relations in PAIA, which was why it was vital the Protection of State Information Bill was aligned with the act. "Currently PAIA overrides any law that prohibits or restricts the disclosure of information in a manner inconsistent with PAIA.
"It is therefore the supreme law relating to access of information in SA," it said.
The organisation said Section 1 (4) of the Protection of State Information Bill made it possible to override PAIA. "This means that restrictions on the release of information under the Secrecy Bill will apply even where PAIA would require that information to be released. It also means procedural differences between the Secrecy Bill and PAIA will be resolved in favour of the (Secrecy) Bill."
Tammy O'Connor, spokeswoman for the organisation, said yesterday: "The Secrecy Bill effectively allows access to documents requested under PAIA to be refused merely on the basis of their status as a classified document. It says that a classified record must be declassified before it is released. If it is released prior to declassification, both the person releasing and the person receiving the information may be subject to criminal prosecution.
"The test for declassification in the Secrecy Bill does not conform with any of the grounds for refusal under PAIA."
She said the Protection of State Information Bill also does not stipulate how long government has to respond to a request to declassify documents, stating only that the period be "reasonable".
This, the organisation said, was inconsistent with the 30 days stipulated under PAIA for following up requests and said this will cause further delays.
"Delay is frequently used as a tactic to frustrate the efforts of communities and civil society organisations to gain access to information. The Secrecy Bill opens this loophole up to abuse, which will further frustrate the efforts of citizens to ensure public accountability," CSN said.
These organisations are not alone in their concerns about the bill, and the African National Congress's (ANC's) position regarding the bill remains controversial. Last month, the ANC withdrew the bill in the National Assembly for further consultation, following widespread opposition and public protest.
This article was originally published on Business Day.