Kasrils explains new 'secrets Act'

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 26 May 2008

New secrecy legislation recently tabled in Parliament will usher in a new era of government openness and transparency, says intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils. However, free speech activists disagree.

Kasrils, in his budget vote speech last week, said the Protection of Information Bill will seek "to regulate the manner in which government information should be secured within an open and democratic society".

Cabinet approved the Bill, meant to replace a 1984 law with the same name, on 5 March. Kasrils says the Bill will protect "sensitive information" that must lawfully be restricted by criminalising the actions of those who attempt to gain unauthorised access to such data, or the state's ICT infrastructure, for the purpose of prejudicing SA's national security.

"These provisions are not a 'Kafkaesque' ploy to obstruct the work of journalists and researchers," says Kasrils. "Rather, they target those engaged in espionage activities and information peddlers disseminating false information to undermine the integrity of government."

He says the Bill will set out the procedures for classification and declassification and "will, in fact, facilitate access to government information". Free speech activists say this claim is ironic, as a law passed eight years ago to do the same has achieved the opposite.

Civil society organisations, such as the Freedom of Expression Institute, have complained for years that government, in particular, has failed to live up to the spirit, as well as the letter of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

Kasrils insists the Protection of Information Bill reinforces PAIA by ensuring any decision taken to restrict information is done "sparingly, lawfully, legitimately and is justified within the context of our Constitution, making it an offence to use this process as a cloak to hide government corruption, incompetence or abuse".

"In addition, by providing for regular status reviews, it will enable access to documentation that was previously deemed to be classified," says Kasrils.

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