CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africa’s ruling party is backing down on a proposed information bill that would make publication of “classified information” punishable by up to 25 years in jail, and had been widely criticized as an attack on press freedom.
In a statement Friday, the African National Congress — the party of Nelson Mandela that has been in power since the end of apartheid — said it had given "very serious and careful consideration to many concerns expressed about certain provisions" of its proposed Protection of Information Bill.
The ANC agreed to scrap mandatory prison sentences for possessing and publishing secret information, and to limit the power to classify to state security bodies, the South African Press Association reports.
Criticism of the proposed media bill has come from a broad spectrum of society concerned about press freedom in South Africa, including the business community, media, opposition politicians and even some members of the ANC.
Under South Africa’s apartheid government, journalists were heavily censored, arrested and sometimes forced into exile for their coverage of the anti-apartheid movement.
Journalism has flourished since the end of white rule in 1994, and the country’s media outlets regularly expose corruption and government waste.
South Africa's National Press Club welcomed what it called "major concessions to bring the proposed legislation in line with the constitution,” the Associated Press reports.
The ANC also agreed to appoint a retired judge to hear any appeal to a refusal for access to classified information, instead of placing the power with the state security minister in the ANC-led government.
The bill has stalled in parliament in there is no date set for a vote.
“Given our history and the often horrific experiences we have had with our security services, and given the provisions of our Constitution which enjoins us to ‘recognize the injustices of our past,’ the African National Congress wants to change the culture of secrecy,” the party said.