CAPE TOWN - State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele last night labelled those protesting against the so-called "secrecy bill" proxies funded by foreign spies, while African National Congress (ANC) MP Cecil Burgess said opposition to the bill could be due to inaccurate reporting by the media.

These remarks are likely to offend the many civil society groups that have opposed the bill under the Right2Know campaign.

The ruling party came out firing as it forced the Protection of State Information Bill into its second reading debate on the floor of the National Assembly but also delayed forcing a vote. A list of 123 amendments placed on the order paper by the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Freedom Front Plus forced the recreation of the ad hoc committee dealing with the bill and the postponement of the vote.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said last week that the ANC would not steamroll the bill into law over the protests of civic groups and opposition parties.

The ad hoc committee has worked for more than a year to create a presentable product and only a handful of issues remain unresolved. The primary concern is the inclusion of a public interest defence for those who divulge state secrets. Hefty jail terms for those who either possess or reveal state secrets remain in the bill.

Introducing the debate, Mr Cwele said that while substantial changes had been made to the original bill -- including limiting it to the security organs of state and classification only for reasons of national security - demands for a public interest defence could not be accommodated. If the courts found divulging classified information was not in the public interest, "the harm would already have been done", he said.

Mr Cwele said there had been an increasing threat of espionage in SA since 1994, and foreign spies continued to steal the nation's sensitive information and were now funding the protests of their local proxies.

Mr Burgess, who is chairman of the ad hoc committee that processed the bill, said that over the more than a year of deliberation, he had given many interviews and had not once been accurately quoted.

Continuing the attack, ANC MP Luwellyn Landers said the Right2Know campaign had come up with blatant lies and should be known as the "right lie" campaign.

Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said the issue of what may be classified was 99% resolved - "only sensitive information actually likely to cause demonstrable harm to the national security at three thresholds of damage". But she said the DA would vote against the bill "because we think the offences, especially of possession and disclosure, and especially in respect of the intelligence services, offend against the right to receive and impart information".

African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart, who played a significant role in the work done on the bill, said the absence of a public interest defence would lead his party to oppose the bill.

Last night the Congress of South African Trade Unions said it was "firmly of the view that our original fundamental substantive concerns remain largely unaddressed". It said it would seek a further meeting with the ANC to clarify the process in relation to Parliament and the public consultation process that appeared to have been abandoned.

"We believe it would be more advisable to withdraw the bill from Parliament and refer it to the South African Law Reform Commission to investigate how state information may be appropriately regulated."

hartleyw@bdfm.co.za