MPs may yet make limited changes to the contested Protection of State Information Bill, a senior state law adviser said on Thursday (14/03/2013).
Ntuthuzelo Vanara told members of the National Assembly’s ad hoc committee finalising the bill they had the power to revise amendments made by their colleagues in the National Council of Provinces last year, but only where these were not drafted clearly enough.
"We are of the view that if this particular proposal does not achieve the desired outcome... the committee is well within its right to then make that proposal to effect that amendment.” Vanara was called to clarify the mandate of the committee amid uncertainty over whether it may merely approve or reject the raft of changes made by NCOP members, or go further.
It is expected that the Democratic Alliance will push for changes to the bill.
DA MP Dene Smuts this week endorsed the changes made by the NCOP, but said it was regrettable that its members had stopped short of rewriting the bill’s provision on espionage.
The liability threshold for espionage remains lower than for other offences created by the bill, in that it does not require the state to prove that the accused knew the harm that would arise from his actions.
In public hearings on the bill last year, human rights veteran George Bizos said this meant somebody could be jailed for 25 years for being negligent or "stupid”.
Smuts said the NCOP had made changes in the definitions section of the bill that refer to this offence, and thereby opened a backdoor for the National Assembly to revise it.
"We will seek to reopen this debate,” she said.
"The espionage clause will otherwise crash constitutionally for vagueness and severity, as advocate Bizos had warned.” While ANC MPs have shown no appetite for further changes, the DA will also continue its quest to have provisions on valuable information removed from the bill.
Smuts said this had no place in conventional state secrets legislation. However, since this was not changed by the NCOP, the opposition has no hope of returning to the issue in the ad hoc committee.
Smuts said the DA would, if necessary, lobby President Jacob Zuma to refer the bill to the Constitutional Court before signing it, to let its judges decide the issue.
The bill, which was introduced three years ago, not only sparked a sustained public outcry — with critics saying it constituted a return to apartheid era state secrecy — but caused divisions within the ruling party.
It was approved by the National Assembly in late 2011, but last year ANC MPs defied pressure from State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele to rewrite key clauses of the bill.
They notably inserted a clause that protects people who reveal classified information to expose a crime from prosecution.
The ad hoc committee has to report back to the National Assembly on the bill by June 20. -