Human Rights Watch has urged the South African government to revise the contentious Protection of Information Bill.

The New York based organisation, in a letter to the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Protection of Information Legislation, said that the proposed bill is overly broad and vague and would promote secrecy over transparency.

“The current draft of the bill threatens free speech, transparency, and accountability, and in fact South Africa’s democracy,” said Sipho Mthathi, South Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Access to information is essential to public participation and to good governance.”

The bill, introduced in March, would replace South Africa’s 1982 Protection of Information Act and “regulate the manner in which information may be protected.” It has generated intense criticism by South African civil society groups concerned about the increased level of government secrecy the bill would allow.

In October, the state security minister, Siyabonga Cwele, insisted that the bill complied with international human rights standards on freedom of expression and information. Many legal experts, however, say the bill violates both the South African Constitution and international treaties to which South Africa is a party.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to ensure that the proposed law is accessible and unambiguous, with specific narrow categories of information that could be withheld only to protect a legitimate national security interest.

“The current draft of the bill comes nowhere near striking the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and national security interests in a democratic society,” Mthathi said. “The committee has an opportunity to correct that, but it must be willing to redraft the legislation by introducing substantial amendments, not just tinkering with details.”

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