Access to information held by public and private bodies

May 13, 2022 | , | News

The Promotion of Access to Information Act 2 of 2000 (commonly known as PAIA) is South Africa’s access to information law and it enables people to gain access to information held by both public and private bodies. All organisations in South Africa must comply with it.

PAIA

The judgement of the learned Judge Nuku of 10 May 2022 in the case of Tiso Blackstar Group v Steinhoff International (see full link Tiso Blackstar Group v Steinhoff International [2022] 18706-2019 (WCC).pdf – Google Drive) is a prime example.

In this case, during December 2017 Deloitte Accountants refused to sign off on Steinhoff’s annual financial statements because of some alleged accounting irregularities. Later that month, Steinhoff’s CEO tendered his resignation. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) performed an independent investigation into the irregularities. The events caused a sharp decline in Steinhoff’s share price, the loss estimated in the region of 98 % of its value, resulting in investors losing in excess of R200 billion. Tiso Blackstar requested access to the PwC report in terms of s 53(1) of PAIA on the grounds that it was a member of the media that investigates and exposes corporate scandals and is responsible for providing the public with accurate information in the public interest. Steinhoff refused the first PAIA request on the grounds that the PwC report was legally privileged as contemplated in section 67 of PAIA. A second request was also refused and the applicants, all related to the media, approach the court in terms of section 78 of PAIA seeking an order directing Steinhoff to supply Tiso Blackstar and amaBhungane with a copy of the PwC report.

In his judgement, Nuku J discussed whether access to the PwC report can be refused on the grounds of privilege, section 70(b) of PAIA and that a request must be granted if the public interest in the disclosure outweighs the harm contemplated in the provisions, whether the report is severable and certain sections can be disclosed, the right of access to records of private bodies; and Steinhoff’s contentions around the purpose of the PwC report. Nuku J further expressed difficulty in following Steinhoff’s argument that its refusal to provide the PwC report does not limit the applicant’s right to freedom of expression. Nuku J held that access to information is crucial to accurate reporting and thus to imparting accurate information to the public. The decisions of Steinhoff refusing the PAIA requests are set aside. Steinhoff is directed to supply Tiso Blackstar and amaBhungane each with a copy of the PwC report within ten days of the order.

This article is not a full explanation of PAIA – for more information contact our offices on info@cklaw.co.za or (021) 556 9864, and speak to one of our attorneys.

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