Press Release Nov. 23, 2010 on S. Africa
Press Release From Human Rights watch
Bill Curtails Right to Know, Is Overly Broad on National Interest
The current draft of the bill threatens free speech, transparency, and accountability, and in fact South Africa’s democracy. Access to information is essential to public participation and to good governance.
(Johannesburg) – South Africa should substantially revise the proposed Protection of Information Bill, which is overly broad and vague and would promote secrecy over transparency, Human Rights Watch said in a letter today. The letter was sent to the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Protection of Information Legislation, which is charged with reviewing the bill as it is considered by the parliament.
The bill, introduced in March 2010, would repeal South Africa’s 1982 Protection of Information Act and “regulate the manner in which information may be protected.” It has generated intense criticism by South African civil society groups concerned about the increased level of government secrecy the bill would allow. In response to these concerns, C.V. Burgess, the ad hoc committee chairman, indicated in early November that he would conduct a thorough review of the bill, with a view to narrowing its scope.
“The current draft of the bill threatens free speech, transparency, and accountability, and in fact South Africa’s democracy,” said Sipho Mthathi, South Africa director at Human Rights Watch, who participated in Right to Know, the civil society campaign. “Access to information is essential to public participation and to good governance.”
In October, the state security minister, Siyabonga Cwele, had defended the bill to the committee, contending that it complied with international human rights standards on freedom of expression and information. Many legal experts, however, say the bill violates both the South African Constitution and international treaties to which South Africa is a party.
Human Rights Watch urged Mr. Burgess and the committee to adhere to the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, rules developed by experts and endorsed by the United Nations. The principles require national security laws to be accessible and unambiguous, with specific narrow categories of information that could be withheld only to protect a legitimate national security interest.
Under these principles, South Africa’s government would have to demonstrate in any specific instance in which information was to be withheld that it was using the least restrictive means possible and would have to make the public interest in the information a primary consideration. They would also require adequate safeguards against abuse, including prompt, full and effective scrutiny of the validity of the restriction by an independent court or tribunal.
“The current draft of the bill comes nowhere near striking the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and national security interests in a democratic society,” Mthathi said. “The committee has an opportunity to correct that, but it must be willing to redraft the legislation by introducing substantial amendments, not just tinkering with details.”