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05 April 2012 at 14:19 BST

South Africa privacy law 'could create police state'

Critics rounded on the South African government earlier this week after Pretoria proposed a controversial 'secrecy law' that they fear would create a 'police state'.

Pretoria: veil of secrecy

Trade unions, international organisations and close associates of former president Nelson Mandela expressed fears that the draft legislation would provide carte blanche for the government to hide many of its activities behind a veil of confidentiality.

Far-reaching powers

According to local newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, the Protection of State Information Bill would hand ministers powers that are ‘too far-reaching’. Under the law, gaol terms of up to 25 years could be doled out to whistleblowers, journalists, researchers, and any members of the general public purportedly in violation of leaking or publishing information deemed classified by the bill.
In effect, the proposed legislation would eliminate governmental transparency in South Africa, the newspaper reports. The general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Zwelinzima Vavi, warned parliament last week that ‘the scope of the draft legislation was too wide, the penalties it imposed disproportionate, and the potential impact on South Africa’s democratic values devastating’.
The Bill reportedly contains a provision that would allow it to override the Promotion of Access to Information Act, which is commonly used by civil society groups to obtain information concerning citizens’ rights from the state when necessary.
The Bill was approved last year by the country’s parliament last year, pushed through by the African National Congress party’s majority, which then referred it to the National Council of Provinces for further review.

Court action

While the council has been holding nationwide hearings on the matter in recent days, a spokesman said attendances has been generally poor.
According to London newspaper The Guardian, however, George Bizos—a South African lawyer and friend to Nelson Mandela—claimed: ‘There will be a never-ending queue waiting to take this bill to court if it is passed in its present form’.
The trade union congress has warned that the bill threatens to ‘take us back to where we come from—the police state’, the newspaper reported. The organisation said it would be the first to challenge the law if it were passed.

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