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'Info bill fits human rights standards'

Oct 22 2010 14:18 Sapa

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Cape Town - Those who continue to argue against the Protection of Information Bill believe SA has no legitimate national security to protect, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said on Friday.

In a presentation to the special parliamentary committee dealing with the bill, Cwele said the approach adopted by the government towards the bill was underwritten by the International Covenant for Human Rights and the European Covenant on Human Rights.

It was also in line with the African Charter on Human and People's Rights.

"These have produced a substantive international jurisprudence on national security matters and access to information," he said.

The right to freedom of expression was enshrined in a range of international and regional treaties and instruments binding member states, including South Africa.

Each of these also provided for the limitation of this right on the basis of national security. International best practice on how this might be achieved took the form of a three-part test as the norm.

Firstly, the limitation had to be prescribed by law which had to be clear and precise.

Secondly, it had to be genuinely directed towards achieving one of the legitimate aims of the treaties providing the basis for the limitation, namely national security, public order or public health or morals.

If the aim was the protection of national security, the limitation had to advance or contribute towards this.

Thirdly, the limitation had to be justifiable and necessary in a democratic society.

"Although we remain convinced that the original version of the bill conformed to this three-part test, we have since reviewed it and recommended that certain provisions be deleted to better conform to this test," Cwele said.

These included the total removal from the bill of "national interest" and "commercial information" to ensure clarity, precision and sticking to legitimate aims.

In addition, prerequisites for classification had been added to ensure any legitimate grounds for limitation of the right to access to information were not abused for hiding wrongdoing, corruption, maladministration, inefficiency and incompetence in the public service.

In view of these, among other things, those who continued to argue against the bill were basically of the view that South Africa had no legitimate national security to protect.

"Clearly, this is far from the truth," Cwele said.

The information the government sought to protect included:
  •  legitimate national intelligence structures sources;
  •  legitimate operational methods, doctrine, facilities and personnel of security structures;
  • sensitive confidences in international relations;
  •  ongoing investigations of state security structures;
  • details of criminal investigations and legitimate police and law enforcement methods;
  •  and economic, scientific or technological secrets vital to the country's stability, security, integrity, and development.

"We also seek in national security to negate hostile acts of foreign intervention, terrorist and related activities, information peddling, espionage, and unlawful acts against the constitutional order," he said.

All of these reflected not just South Africa's concerns, but those of other developed and developing countries.

"We are legislating for real problems and are not seeking to cover up corruption," Cwele said.

Importantly, the public interest override in the Promotion of Access to Information Act, which was acknowledged in the bill, enabled those who wanted to expose documents classified to hide corruption or an impending public health problem to do so using legitimate channels, he said.
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