The draft Protection of Information Bill is not aimed at isolating the media, the State Security Ministry said on Tuesday.
"There is not a single reference to the media in the bill. But upon following due process, journalists can make use of classified information... They have to use certain channels to get it," David Dlomo, from the ministry's advisory section, said at a debate in Pretoria hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council.
According to the bill, anyone who publishes secret material could go to jail for 25 years. This would, as State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said in Parliament last week, serve as a deterrent to unauthorised disclosure.
Cwele said that the government would narrow the scope of the bill by scrapping the notion of classification in the national interest, but largely preserve the rest.
Dlomo emphasised that not all information would be classified, and that should the bill be passed by Parliament, there would be a period of compulsory review to assess whether certain classified information should remain as such, or be declassified.
Open Democracy Advice Centre executive director Alison Tilley said that her organisation agreed with the minister on narrowing the definitions, but they would not stop campaigning against the bill being passed in its current form.
Tilley questioned whether the State Security Ministry was the right one to legislate, adding it was inappropriate to protect most information anyway.
Describing the ministry as one steeped in fear and paranoia while concerned about enemies, she said that there was a need to legislate information in a sensible way.
"They are afraid but can't seem to explain to us why. Until there is clarity, it is not appropriate for the department to try legislate on the basis of a need to know," said Tilley.
"This is very concerning... We are not in a need-to-know constitutional state, but rather in a right-to-know constitutional state."
The Human Rights Commission was concerned about the lack of engagement on the bill.
Dlomo said that the process was far from complete, and that Cwele would "apply his mind" to concerns raised by the public during consultations.
He said that the current debate on the African National Congress's (ANC's) proposed media appeals tribunal was in no way linked to the bill.
He spoke of "unintended consequences and the falsification of facts" by those who link the two for the purpose of an ideological argument that the government was moving away from the "principles of balancing openness to secrecy".
"That's far from the truth... The legislation is essential to ensure that information... is protected against loss, unauthorised destruction and alteration."
Tilley spoke of how secrecy was relevant during the apartheid regime, with those in exile trying to stay alive and ahead of the government.
She says that now, despite legislation aimed at openness, "... still the country has not been doing well in principle of giving information".
There would be no constitutional amendment as a result of the bill, as it had already been passed by state law advisors.
Dlomo said that he believed the bill would pass "constitutional muster".
He reiterated Cwele's stance on how the bill would curtail espionage in the country and ensure that information held by the state, defence, intelligence, correctional services and international relations departments could be kept with confidence.
"It will protect information which can be used for the commission of crime," he said, while acknowledging that no other country has this kind of dispensation that government was proposing.
Dlomo indicated that people were confused solely because of the words "protect and classify".