State Security Agency rejects censorship claims

21 November 2011 - 15:28 By Sapa

Claims that the Protection of State Information Bill will lead to censorship and information blackouts are sensationalist, the State Security Agency (SSA) said on Monday.

"It is not correct that there will be mass classification of information as the application of the bill is narrowed drastically to national security departments," SSA spokesman Brian Dube said in a statement.

"To argue that life under the Protection of State Information Bill will be characterised by censorship and information blackouts is sensationalising of the highest order."

He was reacting after the National Press Club (NPC) asked people opposed to the bill wear black, a black ribbon or black armband on Tuesday, when it is expected to be tabled in the National Assembly.

The SSA said certain pronouncements by NPC chairman Yusuf Abramjee were "a deliberate attempt to mislead the public as regards the objectives of this bill".

"The truth of the matter is that the bill provides numerous avenues for access to information, including classified information," said Dube.

"In some respects, the process to access information has been made even faster than is the current process found in the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

Using "scare tactics", "sensationalism" and "biased information" would not empower the South African public on matters as important as this legislation, the SSA said.

The NPC has named its campaign "Black Tuesday", based on what became known as "Black Wednesday" -- October 19 1977 when the apartheid government banned The World, the Sunday World and a Christian publication Pro Veritas, as well almost 20 people and organisations associated with the black consciousness movement.

The ANC'S parliamentary caucus has dismissed the "Black Tuesday" protest as a "distortion of facts".

"The only result this unfortunate comparison and the planned campaign, in which people are urged to dress in black will achieve is to dilute the real history of the Black Wednesday and insult the victims of apartheid's barbaric laws," ANC Chief Whip Mathole Motshekga said on Monday.

More than a year of deliberations have failed to ease fears among the media that it will lead to excessive state secrecy and curtail media freedom.

On Friday, the ad hoc committee on the bill formally adopted a report rejecting all 123 amendments proposed by the Inkatha Freedom Party.

If the bill is passed, the media will not be able to claim it acted in the pubic interest if it violates or is party to the violation of a law, or publishes classified information to substantiate a report on, for example, malpractice or corruption in government.

The ANC's majority is expected to pass the bill comfortably on Tuesday, though all opposition parties plan to vote against it.

The bill then has to move through the National Council of Provinces before it can be signed into law.

If passed in its current form, it is likely to land up in the Constitutional Court.

ANC ally the Congress of SA Trade Unions, media groups and civil rights organisations have all threatened to take it on review, notably because of the absence of a public interest defence.

The Right2Know Campaign was organising six pickets around the country, including one at Parliament, to protest against the bill.

Motshekga said the government had no intention of banning, torturing or murdering journalists and that the rejection of a public interest defence was in line with international best practice on security in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

On Black Wednesday, editors Percy Qoboza and Aggrey Klaaste were taken to solitary confinement where they spent five months.

According to The Sowetan archive, journalists such as Mathatha Tsedu, Joe Tlholoe, who is now the Press Ombudsman, and Don Mattera were detained and after their jail stay were banned for five years.

Organisations banned included the Beyers Naude's Christian Institute and the Union of Black Journalists.

"Black Wednesday" followed the death in police detention of black consciousness activist Steve Biko, as well as a campaign to resist Bophutatswana becoming a "homeland" independent of South Africa.