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POI Bill is the veil for ANC secrets going back 20 years

There we were, brimming with national pride for six weeks throughout the 2010 FIFA World Cup - and now we're fighting for the future freedom of the media. What an all-holy comedown the Protection of Information Bill and ANC noises of a state-funded media tribunal have been.
And fight we will, for not only is there a Constitution to uphold the freedom of the press but, fortunately, South Africa's journalists are a bloody-minded lot. In fact, the bill has even seen peace-time foes such as the South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) and Print Media SA (of media owners) join forces to object to it in forums such as the crucial portfolio committee hearings held in Parliament last week along, with a host of other groupings such as Idasa, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and South African History Archive.

To get a sense of how this important battle has been playing out in Parliament in Cape Town, watch a video of Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes' submission and read constitutional-law expert Pierre de Vos' take on the hearings.

What is the POI Bill?


The Protection of Information (POI) Bill is, to put it plainly, evil. If it went through in its present form, it would give Government wide-ranging powers to classify pretty much anything it likes if it is deemed harmful to the "national interest" and jail journalists for revealing classified information for between three and 25 years without the option of a fine.

The national interest, however, is defined very broadly and includes, for instance, "the protection and preservation of all things owned or maintained for the public by the State" (ie anything to do with parastatals ) and also commercial information in the government's possession - therefore any information relating to tenders could be classified.

Scarily, it gives the power to classify information to "subordinate staff members" in government departments and although the public would be able to apply to have information declassified through the Promotion of Access to Information Act, if the requested information is classified as top secret the government may refuse to confirm or deny it even exists. Here's an excellent article by Dave Steward, executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation, covering the nitty gritty of the bill.

Where does it come from?


So where does this loony Orwellian Bill come from and why is there such a huge noise being made about it in the media only now, when it has already hit the portfolio committee hearings?

Its oddball history gives us a hint or two about what is going on in the collective ANC brain.

The bill was first issued in March 2008 by the Intelligence Ministry under Ronnie Kasrils and there was an immediate outcry that it was too draconian, so Kasrils sent the bill to the Ministerial Review Commission on Intelligence comprising Joe Matthews, Dr Frene Ginwala and Laurie Nathan. The aim of the review was to "strengthen mechanisms of control of the civilian intelligence structures in order to ensure full compliance and alignment with the Constitution, constitutional principles and the rule of law, and particularly to minimise the potential for illegal conduct and abuse of power".

The commission came back a few months later with a number of recommendations: chiefly that the bill be rewritten so that, among other things, the broadly defined idea of national interest be scrapped and that only the intelligence minister has the right to classify categories of information subject to comment by Parliament and interested parties.

Basically it brought the bill in line with the Constitution and that, the media largely thought, was that.

Then, last month, the bill reached the portfolio-committee hearings stage and everyone realised that not only had the recommendations of the commission been ignored but that various "softening" factors contained in the original bill had been removed and certain parts had been made even harsher, for example, penalties for revealing classified information.

Policy wonks got a fright


Between mid-2008 and now - and a change of intelligence minister from Kasrils to Dr Siyabonga Cwele - the policy wonks at the Intelligence Ministry and Luthuli House thought it would be a nifty idea to backtrack on the process set in motion by Kasrils, slip in more draconian measures and hope it would move through the system without attracting too much attention.

The reason for this, I think, lies in provisions in the bill for government information to be declassified after 20 years and for a review of classification to occur every 10 years.

I would venture it dawned on the ANC that the 20 years from when it won the first democratic election in 1994 was just around the corner: 2014. And it would be best to try keep the POI Bill as broadly defined as possible (with more serious jail terms thrown in) so that ANC government information could be kept under lock and key. The bill already qualifies the provisions made for automatic declassification after 20 years as "unless such information is classified in terms of this Act".

It would seem the ANC got a big fright at the possibility of its dirty linen being aired in public and has moved to thwart it, Constitution or no Constitution.

Every political party has dirty linen and we've already had a peek in April this year at the corruption and greed in the ANC post-1994 when historian Cornelius Thomas revealed to the Sunday Times that he had come across letters and documents containing details of Nelson Mandela's presidency in the ANC archive at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape.

The letters revealed how senior ANC members were investigated for siphoning off donor funds and fleecing the party out of cash and assets worth millions of rands. The ANC quickly ordered the university to block access to the archive and Fort Hare, ever mindful that its struggle credentials is the only thing that keeps it from becoming a small and struggling university in far-flung Alice and East London, obliged.

Last month, the East London-based Daily Dispatch newspaper reported that the archive was "open" to the public but the some of its contents had been "classified", according to the university. Thomas, the historian, had left the employ of Fort Hare and the paper was denied access to the controversial Mandela letters and documents.

High-stakes game


The stakes are incredibly high with this POI Bill and media tribunal.

On the one hand, is the ANC clinging to its status as a liberation-movement, which meant it was accountable only to its members rather than the democratic rule of law and all the citizens of the nation?

On the other hand, the media must now defend its right to freedom and, if the ANC pushes the bill through in its present form, there may well be arrests and intimidation as the media moves through the legal system all the way to the Constitutional Court.

We are prepared to fight but we hope you, the public, will support us and make your voices heard too.

For more reading on the POI Bill:

See also:

About Gill Moodie: @grubstreetSA

Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) is a freelance journalist, media commentator and the publisher of Grubstreet (www.grubstreet.co.za). She worked in the print industry in South Africa for titles such as the Sunday Times and Business Day, and in the UK for Guinness Publishing, before striking out on her own. Email Gill at az.oc.teertsburg@llig and follow her on Twitter at @grubstreetSA.
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