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An editor goes to jail … Does anyone care?

Journalists are not above the law, right? So why the fuss over the legal action against Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya?

The reason is threefold. The first is that images of editors being dragged off to prison (exaggerated as these seem to be in this case) are not good for a country that is a model for new, post-conflict democracies. It undermines our image as a free society.

Secondly, the events reinforce the growing belief that the Presidency uses the state machinery to go after its critics. It is an allegation others, such as Jacob Zuma and Mac Maharaj, have made. When one hears that a senior detective has received orders directly from Pretoria to drop all other cases and go after an editor, that journalists’ families are being harassed and their cellphones snooped on, this gives credence to what is a very serious allegation.

Thirdly, the nature of journalism — and the reason it is the only profession that gets special constitutional status and protection — is that editors and reporters are expected to act in the public interest. They do not always do so, and can expect little protection when this is the case. But when they do, they expect — like any other citizen would — that this will be taken into account.

When someone races through red traffic lights at great speed in order to get an emergency patient to hospital, they are not prosecuted. They are praised. If you break a ban on swimming in Zoo Lake to rescue someone, you would be surprised to be carted off to court. When journalists in the course of their job do something for the public interest — such as exposing malfeasance, corruption or official incompetence — then they can expect the same kind of treatment, a recognition that doing it in the public interest can justify irregular behaviour.

This does not mean journalists are above the law. When one breaks the law, one expects to be prosecuted and to have to defend one’s actions. I have done so on more than one occasion, and have not always succeeded in convincing the courts that what I did was for the public good. In that case, I was prepared to take the rap.

In this case, it is hard not to notice that the minister accused of being unfit for office in the Sunday Times story is still in her post under presidential protection, while the focus of the Presidency’s venom seems to be her deputy minister and the journalists who have drawn attention to very real problems and issues. This action against the Sunday Times is either one of malice or it is an attempt to deflect attention away from the minister’s bibulous and quick-fingered notoriety.

It fits a very concerning pattern: in the Selebi case, he is protected by the Presidency, while his critics and detractors are fired and suspended or others persecuted.

But the authorities are making a mistake. The effect of persecuting the editor is that he will become a global figure of journalistic attention. Furthermore, the minister’s condition will probably be thrashed out in the courts over many months, since it is pertinent to the case, and the case will go all the way to the Constitutional Court, as the Sunday Times has the resources and guts to fight it out. Do they really want to draw more attention to this?

Worse, the already touchy relationship between the media and the government will get tenser. There will be accusation and counter-accusation. There will be self-righteous finger-pointing, more accusations and plenty of dirt thrown around.

It is hard to see who will benefit from this, except those who are sceptical of our capacity to cultivate an open democracy.

Republished from the original on Anton’s blog, The Harbinger



  1. Monde Nkasawe Monde Nkasawe 18 October 2007

    So how should a journalist who is suspected of having broken the law be arrested then? The media must also learn to look at facts and not always rely on rumours and inuendo. For example how has the Presidency used state machinery ‘to go after its critics’? It’s not the Presidency that charged Zuma for rape and corruption, and it’s not the Presidency that accussed Ngcuka of being a spy. The media discredits itself by its lack of rigour concerning the factual basis of their stories. It is not the Presidency that laid a theft charge with the police following the disappearance of Minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang’s medical records. This was done by Medi Clinic, and I find it quite unfortunate that Professor Harber seems to suggest that this is somehow not important. Regardng Professor Harber’s third point, the task of determining public interest is not the exclusive preserve of journalists. In fact it is the South African public that must define their own public interest. South Africans have not said that criminality is acceptable if done in the public interest. The contravention of the Health Act is not in the public interest, and neither is the use of stolen property (the medical records). Everytime the media blames what is in fact very bad behaviour on their part on the authorities instead of outright condemning it, they lose respect and credibility, and no amount of hyperbole is going hide this little fact.

  2. MidaFo MidaFo 19 October 2007

    I strongly disagree with Harber. Get real man!

    His reaction is hysterical and even cliched; typical of so much that comes out of the nefarious and guilt ridden favoured classes in SA.

    The Editor must go to court. If he is guilty of anything he must be sentenced after a fair and open trial. If the anything they can prove is insignificant in relation to the information about the minister then he will be vindicated a thousand times over as Harber himself inadvertantly points out. But if he is shown to have unfairly compromised the minister, who is human and fallible like us all, then he will be shown to be opportunistically rash and foolish.

    The editor and South Africa must revel in the court appearance; it is an opportunity in a lifetime and indicative of the sound structure South African society. It is also an opportunity for the legal proffession to show its validity, and although I do not have much confidence in it, largely comprised as it is of the social classes referred to above, I hope it does not fail.

    Let the game begin and let us see!

    Now if the trial is influenced or worse, if the editor was to simply disappear—–well that is another thing, but it has not happened (and I believe strongly that neither is it likely to happen) To cry wolf at this stage is to blunt the neccessary protest properly reserved for such an eventuality.

    Having seldom missed and edition of the Weekly Mail and the M&G, right now I am really disappointed in Harber.


    You write:
    “it is an attempt to deflect attention away from the minister’s bibulous and quick-fingered notoriety.”
    Are you stating that Manto is an alcoholic and a thief ??
    Have you the guts to say so categorically or do you think that you might also appear in court and lose your position as head of journalism at Wits ?


    You write that Harber’s reaction is “typical of so much that comes out of the nefarious and guilt ridden favoured classes in SA.”
    I conclude that your contempt is based on the fact that Harber is
    white and middle class.
    Are you suggesting that black journalists, working in the South African media, would have a different reaction ? And if so, why ?

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