EASTERN Cape police officials have been told to sign "internal secrecy agreements” which forbid them from leaking information police bosses consider classified.
While the policy has been in place since 1996, officials said this week they had been told to sign the document, despite some having already done so previously.
However, it is not clear what information is covered under the agreement.
Police management denied claims that this was an attempt to muzzle senior officials.
Provincial police spokeswoman Brigadier Marinda Mills said police officers were required to sign the nearly 80-page document every five years.
But police and info bill experts and lobbyists warned yesterday that plans were afoot by various government departments to find "loopholes” to protect non-classified information, with officials already making use of an internal policy to classify information.
Senior Port Elizabeth police officials – mainly brigadiers and colonels – were told last week to sign confidentiality agreements in line with the government’s internal Minimum Information Security Standards (MISS) policy.
The "already functional secrecy policy” was approved by cabinet in 1996 and allows all government departments to classify documents and information – with no set criteria on what their decision should be based.
Port Elizabeth’s Mount Road cluster commander, Major-General Dawie Raabie, told officers at a cluster meeting they faced disciplinary action if caught violating the MISS policy.
However, while experts agree some information – including informants’ identities and other information that could jeopardise a person’s safety – should be kept confidential, Mills could not provide clarity on why the meeting was considered classified.
Policing expert and former police official Professor Rudolph Zinn said it appeared the government wanted to restrict any "sensitive information” that could result in public criticism.
"This is not the intended use of the policy and it is clearly being abused. I would argue that what it is currently being used for is unconstitutional.
"There seems to be an agenda in this day and age that officials rather classify information in an attempt to avoid being in trouble or reprimanded.
"This raises serious concerns as to what our police are doing. If they can do it in the Eastern Cape, they can do it anywhere. This is certainly not transparency and raises many questions,” Zinn said.
Corruption specialist and Cape Town Institute for Security Studies director Hennie van Vuuren said certain individuals within the security sector were attempting "to close any loopholes”.
"They should not use this policy to hide information from the public. Transparency needs to be a primary consideration when decisions are made with regard to the policy. If anything, it is very possible that these officers are abusing the policy,” Van Vuuren said.
Right2Know Campaign national coordinator Murray Hunter said the MISS policy allowed all government departments to keep their dirty washing under wraps by claiming the documents were classified.
"Last year alone, the Department of Higher Education classified over 300 documents under the MISS policy. What state security information does the Department of Higher Education have that allows them to actively classify these documents?
"This is a working secrecy bill that involves all levels of government and is, unfortunately, open to abuse and exploitation by officials who do not want certain things exposed,” Hunter said.