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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 06:34 GMT 07:34 UK
Protests over SA 'snooping' bill
By Philippa Garson in Johannesburg

Protests are growing in South Africa against the country's plan to give the security services new powers to monitor terrorists and serious criminals.

Opponents say the Interception and Monitoring Bill is draconian, describing it as a charter for government snooping.

Given only three weeks to make submissions on the Bill, non-government organisations have been making last-ditch attempts to garner more time to respond before the 13 August deadline.

The bill was quietly passed by South Africa's Cabinet last month, largely catching the public unawares.

It provides for state monitoring of all telecommunications systems, including mobile phones, internet and e-mail, once permission has been granted by relevant authorities.

In most cases a judge must grant the order, but in some instances a police or army officer of a particular rank may do so.

Slow-burning opposition

It's appalling. The powers are far too wide

Raymond Louw, Media Institute of South Africa
Opposition to the Bill has been slow to mount, but some media organisations are now slamming the proposed legislation as a threat to the constitutional right to privacy and freedom of speech.

"It's appalling. The powers are far too wide," says Raymond Louw, representing the South African chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

"They introduce a whole number of intrusive possibilities that were not even present during the (apartheid) regime. We understand the concerns about crime but this is not the way to go about beating it."

Mr Louw, whose organisation is seeking to extend the submission deadline, is deeply concerned that the bill allows for monitoring to take place where there is a "threat or alleged threat to the security or other compelling national interests of the Republic."

He sees this as open to abuse. "It's an expression of government paranoia and the creeping authoritarianism we are starting to see," he says.

Financial burden

What rankles the telecommunications service providers is that the financial burden to supply the necessary technology for state monitoring and interception lies with them. If they fail to do so within three months, they face massive fines.

Scotch Tajwireyi
Scotch Tajwireyi: ISPs will push up their costs
"We are being asked to bear the costs of monitoring. This was not part of our licensing agreement and we question whether we should be paying for it," says Joan Joffe, group executive corporate affairs of mobile network operator Vodacom.

"As opponents of crime we believe that under certain circumstances it may be necessary for the authorities to have certain information.

"Nevertheless the constitutional right to privacy of our customers is sacrosanct and we will only allow interception if the correct legislative procedures are followed."

The millions of rands service providers must spend on making their services monitor-friendly - particularly gathering information on the identities of all cellular phone users - will inevitably be passed to the consumers.

This will inhibit the growth of access to telecommunications for the masses, says Ms Joffe.

This includes access to the internet. "Internet service providers will push up their costs which will slow down internet growth," says Scotch Tajwireyi of the Freedom of Expression Institute.

"This defeats the purpose of widespread access to the internet," he argues.

The Bill will also curtail the freedom of expression and the flow of information, in his view. Sources will not readily divulge information to the media knowing they can be intercepted.

Bill 'necessary'

But not all condemn the proposed legislation. Some newspaper editorials say the Bill is in sync with international practice and contains sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse.

It is necessary in the fight against the country's terrible crime problem, argues the moderate daily newspaper, Business Day.

A report in the Mail and Guardian slates what it sees as a "disinformation campaign" spread on the internet about the Bill by a former South African journalist, Adriana Stuijt, who likens the proposed legislation to draconian Chinese-style censorship of the Internet on her website,

The "hysteria" has quickly spread to other better-known sites, showing 'how easily disinformation is spread on the internet and on how readily it provides a home for any bad news on South Africa' says the Mail and Guardian.

The Bill is now due to go before Parliament.

See also:

02 Jul 01 | Africa
South Africa's dot.bombs
10 Sep 99 | Africa
A Net gain for Africa?
29 Jan 00 | Business
Is the web widening the poverty gap?
11 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
ISPs RIP warning
06 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Net laws 'still allow snooping'
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