24 February 2012

Secrecy bill public hearings a sham

The hearings, which are aimed at sourcing public opinion on the much debated Protection of Information Bill, also known as the secrecy bill, have come across as nothing but a facade - judging by the manner in which they have been conducted.

The Right 2 Know Campaign activists/representatives who attended some of these so-called ‘public consultation’ hearings could not contain their shock that the organisation issued a statement deeming  the process ‘flawed’ and ‘highly partisan’ in nature.

The hearings, undertaken by the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), are meant to gather public opinion in order to inform the NCOP’s decision whether to propose amendments certain provisions of the bill or not. Should the NCOP submit any proposals for possible amendments, the national assembly may accept or reject such propositions before it is signed into law by the state president. The bill was passed in the national assembly and forwarded to the NCOP for consideration.

One of the reasons behind the uproar regarding the bill is that it imposes harsh sentences against any individual who may be in possession of classified information regardless of whether they use that information or not. Furthermore, the bill does not have a public interest defence clause, an issue that has caused civil society organisations and those concerned to oppose the bill being passed in its current form.


The venues and times of hearings have repeatedly been changed, creating much confusion to those wishing to attend. Also, most people who attended did not know much, if at all, about the bill, in fact many were seeing the copy of the bill for the first time that morning of the hearing. As a result, people raised issues of service delivery and other problems they face in their communities and did not talk about the bill. This obviously defeats the purpose of such hearings.

Despicable behaviour

A SAHA representative who attended the hearing in Sharpeville near Johannesburg was appalled by the behaviour of the chairwoman, deeming her conduct as ‘despicable’.
“She was rude to those who disagreed with the bill or her personal political views, she cut people off and made them sit down when they tried to speak, and she would not allow for translation of submissions that she deemed irrelevant. However, she did not have the same attitude towards those who supported the bill or her views (many of whom wore ANC t-shirts), even when their statements did not pertain to the bill. She also insulted community members who were critical of the bill, calling them uneducated when they could not point to specific section numbers during their submissions,” said the SAHA representative.  
“What is the role of public consultation if people are told not to ask questions and that debate would hinder the progress,” questioned the representative.

Should this be a common practice throughout the process, the NCOP hearing process would have been futile and the bill will go through as is – an unsavoury outcome considering the implications thereof.