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FXI requests more time for public commentary on the Interception and Monitoring Bill

(FXI/IFEX) - The following is a 13 August 2001 FXI press release:

Interception and Monitoring Bill

The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) calls upon the department of justice to postpone its deadline for public comments on the recently published Interception and Monitoring Bill. The FXI calls for the deadline, which is fixed for 13 August, to be moved to a future date to afford interested parties a chance to study the bill.

The bill has serious implication for freedom of expression, the free flow of information and access to information for individuals, media and civil society as a whole.

Firstly, like most government bills and acts that impact upon freedom of expression and access to information, it holds national interest and national security as supreme but fails to define what it calls national interest or national security. Previous cases have shown that the state can use national interest and security to justify any of its actions. In the past, the South African government has used national interest and national security to subpoena journalists (the case of Benny Gool) to act as witnesses in murder cases. It has also used it to deny citizens access to information, as in the case of live coverage of the arms deal hearing by and SABC.

Secondly, to allow this drastic increase in the power of the state to monitor and intercept private communications will have far reaching implications for the free flow of information. Media sources in government and other organizations will have no way of delivering information to the media because of fear that it might be intercepted. Organizations like the FXI for example, which sometimes run projects that may be critical of government, will also be subjected to the same danger.

Thirdly, the amount of power invested in offices in the police, the army, the Agency and the Directorate of Investigation are both arbitrary and rather misplaced. For example, they can get what is called call related data, which means every investigation into police activities by the media will not be possible because the police would simply intercept the communications of the media house concerned and figure out ways of dealing with it.

Fourthly, the bill also gives service providers financial burdens that have no economic rationale. Service providers will be required to comply with the specifications of the bill in terms of allowing the interception and monitoring system. The state will only pay what it calls direct costs, which will definitely have serious implications on the growth of the internet, telecommunication and other sources of communication that are enabling wider access to information.

The bill proposes the creation of a central monitoring centre at the taxpayers' expense. Obviously a centre where the technological requirement reflected in the bill will cost millions of rands. However, what is sad is the fact that the government is not equally committing resources for communities to access information. The access to information Act of 2000 is hardly implemented and there is hardly a financial commitment from the government to implement it.

The rationale behind the bill, according to the department of justice, is to give law enforcers tools to fight crime. The department, however, emphasises the fact that the procedure that is followed to allow the police or the army to intercept phones is very strict. However, without a definition of national interest and national security which is independent of the state's own pronunciation, this will be very difficult.

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