Addressing the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) about the secrecy bill on 24 January 2012, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said that "many in the public do not know which version of the bill [is] on the table", implying that continued opposition to the bill is uninformed and misplaced.
Cwele continued to defend the bill against criticism that it will limit citizen's access to information. Cwele stated "this bill is not about secrecy, it is about balancing openness and secrecy in conduct of national security."
One cannot help but wonder whether it is Cwele that is confused, rather than members of civil society, as he seems unaware that the balance between openness and secrecy was achieved ten years ago in the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).
The South African constitution affords all South Africans the right of access to any information held by the State. However, as with all rights in the constitution, the right of access to information is subject to reasonable restrictions.
Those reasonable restrictions are codified in PAIA, which sets out the processes for accessing information and the limitations on that access. One such limitation is access to information which may prejudice the defence or security of South Africa; what Cwele refers to as ‘national security'. The public has no right to access such information.
With this restriction already in place it is difficult to understand why Cwele claims, without offering examples, that foreign spies have, in the past, found it easy to get access to information. Indeed any easy access to information concerning national security by foreign spies is likely a result of government leaks or mishandling of information, as the information cannot currently be obtained through legal means and is not in possession of the public.
Yet the secrecy bill imposes harsher penalties on ordinary South African citizens than public officials. Under the secrecy bill a public official that willfully or in a grossly negligent manner fails to comply with the law may be subject to a maximum of 2 years in prison. A public official that unlawfully and intentionally destroys, alters or erases valuable information may be subject to a maximum of 3 years in prison.
On the other hand members of the public who come into possession of classified information and do not return it to the South African Police Service may be jailed for 5 years, even if they do not make the information public or share it with anyone.
South Africans are not confused about the secrecy bill. They understand it will restrict their right to access information and threatens the liberty of journalists and ordinary citizens. That is why they are calling for the bill to be scrapped or amended.
The NCOP have scheduled public hearings on the bill throughout the country at which you can express your concerns with the bill. For more information about the public hearings click here.