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SAFRICA-SECRECY Sep-2-2010 (410 words) xxxi

Bishops ask South Africa to withdraw bill on state secrets

By Bronwen Dachs
Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- South Africa's bishops have called on the government to withdraw a bill on state secrets, which they say violates the spirit of openness and accountability essential for a healthy democracy.

The Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference "has serious concerns about the wisdom and the constitutionality of the Protection of Information Bill," which is before South Africa's Parliament in Cape Town, as well as a separate proposed media tribunal, it said in an Aug. 31 statement signed by its spokesman, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban.

The bishops share the views of many civil society groups and constitutional experts that the bill threatens fundamental freedoms such as the right "to receive and impart information," to a free press, administrative justice and "access to information held by the state," the statement said.

"We believe that the bill violates the spirit of openness and accountability that is so necessary to underpin the constitution's provisions on good governance," it said.

Among the bishops' concerns are that the bill allows almost any information to be classified as secret "by officials who are themselves not accountable to the public," that its definition of secrets is so broad that it could be used to keep secret matters that should be accessible to the public, and that "any appeal would be processed" by those who made the original ruling.

"We certainly do not want government to take us back to the oppressive practices of yesteryear," the bishops said in a reference to the draconian laws that limited the flow of information during the apartheid era of white-minority rule.

"We accept that some degree of restriction of information is both legitimate and necessary," but "we have grave misgivings about the way it will be done, particularly since it risks fostering or even entrenching a culture of nonaccountability and nontransparency among state officials at all levels," they said.

The bill allows up to 25 years in jail for those who illegally publish classified information.

The bishops urged President Jacob Zuma's government "to withdraw the bill for complete redrafting to ensure that the openness and transparency required by the constitution and demanded by a clear majority of informed civil society organizations and legal experts are adequately built in."

The bishops said a government-proposed media tribunal is unnecessary because "there is already an efficient media ombudsman." They added that there is "merit in proposals to strengthen the ombudsman's role in enabling the media to regulate itself."

END


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