Anton Harber

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