It felt like I was back at school and in the headmaster’s office. I checked to see that my top button was fastened. It wasn’t.
It wasn’t the headmaster’s office, but it was close enough. It was the office of the Eastern Cape deputy director of public prosecutions (DDPP) — and although we were sipping coffee with the “headmaster”, we were still being hauled (politely, of course) over the coals.
Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya will be arrested this week over his newspaper’s “Livergate” exposé. In another part of a world, two other journalists also had a day of reckoning with the law. We — my partner in crime, as it were, was Grahamstown journalist Mike Loewe — had been called to see the DDPP over a story about a prosecutor whose ex-girlfriend was seeking a restraining order against him, claiming he had abused her.
The story had been published in Grocott’s Mail and Mike had filed the story for Algoa FM.
On November 10 last year, a police officer came to my office and informed me that the newspaper was being investigated in a criminal matter because we had (allegedly) violated the Domestic Violence Act. He read me my rights.
After an investigation lasting almost a year, I was told that the DDPP had arrived at a decision whether or not to prosecute. Mike and I were summoned to his office.
I wanted to know if I had to bring a lawyer.
“No,” he said. “I come in peace.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. But it still felt like I was about to get a beating. The brown docket lay on his desk.
The DDPP first gave us coffee and then a polite lecture on balancing the right to privacy and the right to press freedom, before telling us that he would not be prosecuting us. During the lecture, I looked through the docket. After an 11-month investigation, it contained little more than the original Grocott’s article, highlighted parts of the Act we were accused of contravening, and my statement, which was blank (I chose my right to remain silent).
Like the Sunday Times, we published the story because we believed it was in the public interest. (Can a prosecutor accused of assaulting a woman, be trusted to prosecute offenders who commit crimes against woman? In the criminal case that flowed out of the woman’s application for a restraining order, the prosecutor was cleared of assault. The magistrate argued that he had used “legitimate force” to defend himself. We published pictures that had been handed in to court of the woman’s battered and bruised face.)
Like the Sunday Times, we were under fire not because of the substance of the article, but because of a petty law that had slipped through the press-freedom cracks.
It feels like the state has been wasting time and resources in an attempt to bully the press.