March 29, 2012

Vavi slams secrecy Bill in Parliament

The general secretary of trade-union federation Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, has emphasised in relation to the Protection of State Information Bill in Parliament that the Union remained critical of the "chronic problems" of bias, lack of balanced reporting and diversity in the mainstream commercial media. But state censorship and the potential persecution of journalists and the media would only exacerbate the problems of inaccuracy and bias, he warned. "We have bemoaned the concentration of ownership in the media in our country, which means there are inadequate levels of diversity and plurality that is so essential to media freedom," Vavi said in his hard-hitting oral presentation. "However, in our view, in the absence of other viable alternatives, it remains one of the broadest forms of disseminating and implementing rights of access to information for the masses."

Dressed in a colourful green shirt, Vavi did not try to woo the assembled media during his address. Yet he won acclaim for pointing out that public awareness was integral to holding state institutions accountable and acted as a check against irregularities. In Cosatu's view, it was necessary to facilitate and enhance reporting and investigative journalism in the public interest. "However, as the Bill currently placed extensive restrictions on access, possession and disclosure of classified information, it would necessarily severely curtail this objective," he said. A public interest defence was necessary in the Bill, especially to support whistle-blowers and the media. "We do not believe that there would be much scope for abuse, because the defence would not be available should a person not be able to demonstrate that there would be a public interest to protect or promote." In fact, failure to prove a valid public interest defence would invariably result in the imposition of a criminal sanction, he said.

Vavi added that the Bill would have a "dampening effect" on encouraging the exposure of corruption. Criminal penalties would be applicable in some cases, regardless of the seriousness of the irregularity that was exposed by an unauthorised disclosure. "The reality is that, often, whistle-blowers are driven to illegally obtain information only because it would expose an irregularity or corruption, despite that person ordinarily not displaying similar criminal tendencies," he said.

A common problem faced by trade unions and advice offices related to whistle-blowers sending information on irregularities anonymously to their offices, he said. "In such cases, these organisations would have no authority to possess the classified information. This poses the serious dilemma [of] whether, in order to avoid prosecution in accordance with security legislation, an organisation may be forced to ignore even grand-scale corruption or irregularities."

The Bill allowed for the absolute exclusion of any whistle-blower protection for the disclosure of information classified as a state security matter by intelligence and security agencies under Clause 49, he warned. (Mail & Guardian)

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