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Media Release: Secrecy Bill poses significant threat to transparency in environmental governance

19 September 2011 at 2:09 pm

Bill must be seen against general failure of state departments to implement PAIA

The Centre for Environmental Rights is encouraged by reports this morning of a further revision of the Protection of State Information Bill.

Although much amended, the Protection of State Information Bill in its current form remains a significant threat to public access to essential environmental information, and will make it easier for state bodies to resist legitimate information requests in the public interest. In particular:

  1. The definition of “national security” in the Bill could too easily be extended to apply to a broad range of environmental and natural resource matters of strategic importance, such as water resources, energy production and associated activities, such as mining, and biodiversity resources.
  2. It is of great concern that any organ of state can apply to have certain provisions of the Bill apply to it. This dangerously extends the notion of national security into all other areas of governance, including environmental governance.
  3. In the environmental and environmental health sectors, whistleblowers and investigative journalists play a vital role in exposing environmental threats and holding environmental offenders accountable. The failure to include a public interest defence in this Bill would discourage active and engaged communities and individuals who seek to address threats to the health and wellbeing of the people of South Africa. Discouraging such action through this Bill is in direct conflict with the principles in s.2 of the National Environmental Management Act, 1998 that emphasise public participation and consultation in decisions that affect environmental rights.

The Protection of State Information Bill must also be seen in the context of the general failure of state departments to implement the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA). Since July 2010, the Centre for Environmental Rights has submitted 67 requests for environmental information under PAIA to a wide range of national and provincial government departments on behalf of communities and other civil society organisations. In most instances, these requests relate to records that should already be in the public domain, such as permits and environmental management programmes. In close to 80% of cases, the departments that hold these records have failed to provide them (and only refused access in 3% of cases). Generally speaking, departments often simply ignore both requests for information and even appeals under PAIA.

Against this background, introducing further constraints to access to environmental information poses a significant threat to transparency and accountability in environmental governance.

CENTRE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

Queries, and quotes attributed, to Melissa Fourie, Executive Director (072 306 8888)