In the face of sustained opposition to the Protection of Information Bill (better known as the “protection of information from investigative journalism bill”), the ANC is pushing the speedometer needle well into the danger zone as it chases deadlines at breakneck speed. But the question remains: Will it swap its Ferrari for its trusted bulldozer in the end anyway? By T O MOLEFE.
Operating under obvious pressure from above, ANC MPs grew increasingly agitated during Tuesday’s meeting of the ad hoc committee on the Protection of Information Bill. The source of their annoyance was the slow progress on deliberating clauses in the bill, and accused DA and ACDP MPs of intentionally delaying progress.
During the morning session, the committee’s chairman Cecil Burgess said if consensus could not be reached, clauses of the bill would be put to the vote to speed progress. But by late afternoon, having only worked through three of the bill’s 52 sections, the ANC MPs’ annoyance came to a head when the DA’s Dene Smuts said she did not understand an ANC-proposed change to one of the clauses.
“You talk so much that you’re not even listening,” ANC MP, Luwellyn Landers, responded, refusing to take Smuts through the proposed change again. It was only at Burgess’s request that Landers relented and again explained the change.
Despite having missed previous deadlines to finalise the profoundly contentious bill (roundly condemned by the media and supporters of freedom of information) and having suggested it could present a final bill to the national assembly by June, the committee appears to be at an impasse over a number of issues, including who can classify information as being of national security and what information that would be. Also still up for debate is the exact definition of national security and the protection offered by the bill to journalists and whistleblowers.
On who can classify information, the ANC’s approach is to say that all organs of state are within the scope of the bill and can apply to be excluded if need be. The DA, opposes this as discouraging transparency and accountability, and encouraging abuse. David Maynier, DA shadow minister of defence and military veterans, felt it was part of the committee’s duties to create a bill that says who specifically can classify information and allows anyone else who would like to classify information to do so by applying to the minister of state security.
The committee’s afternoon deliberations were watched closely by community organisations, including the Mandela Park Backyarders, the Newfields Village Anti-Eviction Campaign and the Blikkiesdorp Informal Settlement Committee. Aided by the Right2Know campaign, the organisations have made applications under the Promotion of Access to Information Act to compel the City of Cape Town and the provincial and national departments of human settlements to release information about housing delivery and resettlement plans for their communities.
Blikkiesdorp made international news last year when UK tabloid, The Sun, reported that the city had forcefully moved its homeless to a makeshift shantytown outside Cape Town so they would not be an eyesore for Soccer World Cup visitors. Among their many gripes with the city, Blikkiesdorp residents say that despite Dan Plato’s promise that they would be relocated to proper housing, nothing has materialised. They say they have made the application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act to demand documents that set out the timeframe for their resettlement. They are also worried about the Protection of Information Bill. They fear it will make it easier for politicians to ignore poor communities like theirs and hide behind the bill’s provisions.
At the end of Tuesday’s committee meeting, the ANC asked all parties to find a “less-confrontational” way of working through the bill’s clauses. But having earlier used its majority to bulldoze through a change to the bill, it is likely it’ll do so again to meet its deadline in the face of sustained opposition. DM
TO Molefe is a Cape Town-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo: A protester holds a placard as he takes part in a silent march in Johannesburg October 19, 2010. Protesters voiced their objections to the Protection of Information Bill. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.