DA vows to do battle to ensure media freedom

05 August 2010 - 15:58 By Times LIVE

The Democratic Alliance says the Protection of Information Bill currently before Parliament poses the gravest legislative threat to our constitutional democracy since 1994.

"We in the Democratic Alliance will fight the Bill with every means at our disposal."

The Bill makes it a punishable offence (up to 25 years in prison) to possess, communicate or publish classified state information.

Any government information is classifiable if (in the judgment of politicians and senior civil servants) its disclosure is deemed harmful to the “national interest”.

The Bill enables any “head of an organ of state” or any person delegated by them at a national, provincial or local level or parastatals, to classify documents. Importantly, it gives the Minister of State Security the power to define what categories of information are classifiable.

The “national interest” is defined as all matters “relating to the advancement of the public good”, “the pursuit of justice, democracy, economic growth, free trade, a stable monetary system and sound international relations”, as well as “all things owned or maintained for the public by the state.”

The DA says just like under apartheid, "the Bill will allow the government to invoke the 'national interest' to cover up abuse of power.

It says: "This Bill would have a devastating impact on press freedom. In fact, it would effectively outlaw investigative journalism and whistle-blowing in relation to activities undertaken by the state, or the government. Key media exposés since 1994 – including the Arms Deal, Oilgate, the bribing of Selebi, Malema’s tenders and Bheki Cele’s flouting of tender procedures – may never have seen the light of day, if this Bill had been law. Indeed, the journalists and editors who legitimately pursued these stories in the public interest might now be sitting in jail."

The DA says it plans to:

1. Oppose the passage of the Bill through Parliament

2. Lobby ANC MPs to vote against the Bill
We are aware that many ANC MPs are deeply troubled by this Bill. They believe it undermines our Constitution. But they also believe it undermines the Freedom Charter, the document to which the ANC regularly holds up as its ideological lodestar. It is worth noting that the Freedom Charter promotes media freedom and transparency.

3. Meet the Speaker to discuss the ramifications of the Bill on Parliament
Given the Speaker’s duty to “maintain the authority of the House, and to protect its rights and privileges” and to act as “representative and spokesperson for the Assembly and for Parliament in the outside world”, it is the Speaker’s duty to resist the passage of any bill that will impede Parliament’s ability to hold the Executive to account.

4. Invoke Section 80 of the Constitution
Section 80 of the Constitution grants the National Assembly the power to call for a review of any law on the grounds of constitutionality, if one third of all Members of the National Assembly make such a call. If the Bill is passed we will seek the support of other parties to invoke Section 80 and call for the Constitutional Court to review the Act. To our knowledge, this will be the first time since the adoption of the Constitution that Section 80 will be invoked.

5. Approach the Constitutional Court to overturn the Bill, should it become law
If our appeal under Section 80 of the Constitution fails, we will nevertheless mobilize public support to mount a collective challenge against the Bill. We will throw our weight behind such a challenge and initiate it if necessary.