The editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian and two of the weekly newspaper's senior journalists are now considered suspects in a criminal investigation in connection with allegations of theft and illegal distribution of information.
Editor-in-Chief Nic Dawes and investigative reporters Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer appeared at a police station in Pretoria yesterday for “warning interviews” with the directorate for priority crime investigation (also known as the Hawks) where they were read their rights and given an opportunity to respond to the charges laid against them at the behest of presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj last November. If they are found guilty, the three could potentially face 15-year prison sentences.
The criminal charges stem from an article that the newspaper had been due to publish last November pertaining to Maharaj’s possible involvement with a corrupt arms deal that took place in the mid-1990s, while he was transport minister.
According to the UK Guardian, the now-infamous deal "has been described as the 'original sin' of South Africa's young democracy," with President Jacob Zuma also having been implicated, though he was not convicted. The Guardian has described Maharaja, who is now the president's spokesperson, as "a former Robben Island prisoner who helped smuggle out Nelson Mandela's autobiography."
A South African magazine published the first report of Maharaj’s affiliation with “fraudster” Schabir Shaik, whose company was awarded contracts in the "tainted" deal, in 2001. He and his wife are thought to have accepted money from Shaik.
In 2003, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority summoned the couple to testify under oath in an investigation. Each gave interviews under the National Prosecuting Authority Act of 1998, which also makes it illegal to disclose evidence obtained in such interviews.
In early 2005, a memorandum outlined discrepancies the couple's testimonies and recommended the prosecution of Maharaj, according to a timeline published by the Mail & Guardian. Later that year, prosecutors brought evidence to Maharaj’s attention regarding deposits to his wife's Swiss bank account, the details of which Swiss authorities had revealed to prosecutors in 2004. He then launched court applications to keep the 2003 interview from being used, and challenged the legality of the way in which the Swiss information was obtained.
In 2007 another South African newspaper, City Press, published excerpts from the 2003 transcripts.
In 2011, the Mail & Guardian asked Maharaj questions relating to his interview. His lawyers responded with a letter calling the newspaper’s possession of the transcript unlawful.
Despite warnings of criminal prosecution, the Mail & Guardian ran an edited version of their story about the discrepancies in his interview on November 18, blacking out several columns that referred to the interview, and printing a banner reading "CENSORED" on the front page (pictured). Maharaj’s attorneys laid criminal charges against the three journalists the following day, and the newspaper’s subsequent attempts to obtain permission to publish the transcript were denied.
Dawes holds that the interview “should be in the public domain because it relates to the investigation of serious allegations of corruption and the conduct of very senior officials of government and important people in our national life."
"There is the worry that this legislation may be used in an attempt to prevent journalists from doing their jobs and reporting important information in the public interest," he said, according to the Mail & Guardian.
Maharaj's lawyer, Rudi Krause, said the journalists were "as guilty as the source who leaked the information," according to the Sunday Times, another South African weekly newspaper, which published information about payments to Maharaj the day after charges were laid against its competitor. A third newspaper, City Press, which is owned by the same group as the Sunday Times, published the contents of the 2003 interview at the end of November.
Whether employees of other newspapers will be investigated, or indeed whether the prosecution of the three journalists will continue, has yet to be determined.
"We get involved based on the seriousness of the allegations put forward and take our next step once we determine if it is worth investigating,” said Hawks spokesperson McIntosh Polela on the subject.
Photo courtesy of the Guardian