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Info bill could threaten South African research

South Africa's newly passed Protection of Information Bill could hamper some types of research, academics have warned.

The bill, which was passed by Parliamentary vote on 22 November, aims to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information. It criminalises any researcher who handles or publishes classified information, even if the information was passed to them by a ‘whistleblower’.

The rules could pose a threat to researchers who want to study sensitive government data. Arnold van Zyl, vice-rector for research at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, said defence research at his university might be affected.

“South Africa has a sorry history of abuses of security, the culture of secrecy that the bill espouses is not productive,” Van Zyl told Research Africa.

“The bill will make research into aspects of the security cluster, such as the intelligence services, the police and the defence force, extremely difficult,” said Jane Duncan, Highway Africa chair of media and information society at the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University.

Duncan said any research that is in the public interest, but that is based on leaked classified information, will be criminalised and the researcher could be arrested for failing to report possession of classified information. She said legal research into court proceedings involving classified documents would become practically impossible.

She added that the grounds for classification of documents in the bill were still vague and open to generous interpretation. The open-ended manner in which classified information was defined in the bill was bound to frustrate even the most tenacious researcher, she said.

The South African government says the bill will help prevent the selling of information and protect data critical for national security. It maintains that the bill does not impede the constitutional rights of citizens to access information.