Independent forecasters have been told they could be imprisoned for up to ten years—or fined up to £800,000—if they issue incorrect severe weather warnings without official permission.
The threat is contained in a new law designed to prevent panic and economic damage caused by false predictions of gale force winds, flash flooding or drought.
The proposed amendment to South Africa’s Weather Service Bill would mean that anyone wanting to issue a severe weather warning would first need to get written permission from the country’s official national weather service.
If found guilty of breaching the law, first offenders could face up to five years in prison or a five million rand (£400,000) fine.
Repeat offenders face a maximum of 10 years imprisonment or a ten million rand (£800,000) fine.
The governing African National Congress (ANC) sponsored amendment was on Thursday lambasted by politicians from South Africa’s opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA).
Spokesman Gareth Morgan described the “draconian” law change as an attempt to “establish and protect an unfair monopoly on services offered by the Weather Service”.
Mr Morgan said one upshot of the proposed change would be that a citizen who had seen, for example, an approaching tornado, would be unable to broadcast this information—either on television, the internet or radio—without first applying for written permission to do so.
He also pointed out that the proposed legal change contained a limitation of liability clause that would, in effect, meant that the official South African Weather Service could not itself be held liable it is made a mistake in predicting the weather.
“The bill, if passed in its current form, will have various undesirable consequences, and will make South Africans less safe,” Mr Morgan said.
“There is no reason to believe that the Weather Service, with its limited ability to measure and observe weather changes all around South Africa in real time, can respond quickly to all severe weather events, offering affected people sufficient warning”.
Johan Terblanche, founder of the independent South African Weather and Disaster Observation Service (Sawdos) said that public weather observations are “crucial” in supplementing the information supplied by weather monitoring instruments.
He added: “As the amendment Bill now reads, nobody will be able to issue any warning of approaching severe weather.”
But Isham Abader, deputy director general of the department of environmental affairs told South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper: “The Bill merely seeks to prevent the transmission of unreliable information.
“Incorrect weather warnings could lead to the evacuation of an entire town at great expense to the tax payer.”
South Africa experiences huge variations in temperature and weather. The coastal areas are often buffeted by extremely high winds that can be dangerous for seafarers.
Low-lying inland areas, especially in the hotter north, experience lengthy droughts. Highland areas around the country’s political capital Pretoria often suffer intense electrical and rain storms.