The harassment of e.tv journalists to produce the criminals who were part of their exposé is a direct result of the knee-jerk reaction that our crime fighting strategy has become in South Africa. Someone must have briefed the government security cluster and said that rough street justice is going to win the day. I am a consistent follower of a police series on international television where police torture suspects spy on civil society and generally apply Wild West tendencies to resolve crime.
Given the socialite nature of our top cops, I suspect that, like me, they do go to movies. The difference is some us know that a gung-ho approach frankly only works at the box office. In real life there is a Constitution that protects the rights of those that we may not like. But I digress.
Speaking on the e.tv’s Justice Factor programme this past weekend, Sanef representative Thabo Leshilo was very clear that the right of journalists to protect their sources is sacrosanct and that what they do with that freedom is up to them. In the same programme, Professor Tawan Kupe from Wits University asked a pointed question: at what point does a source lose the right to be protected? Given this dichotomy, let me then ask: can e.tv really do something that amounts to harbouring criminals and giving them a platform to threaten the country in the name of protecting their sources? Shouldn’t e.tv hand these criminals over to the police in the same way that they expose government corruption and lead the police to arrest people who are stealing money from public coffers? Shouldn’t there be collaboration between the police and civil society to make our country safer? Let me dare suggest that if this criminal threatened e.tv staff and started shooting and killing the television crew, the management would not sustain the argument that they must be protected? They would be the first to lay charges and produce all the evidence to back their charge. Because the danger they pose is not apparently imminent, it seems to me that we can argue over the luxury of protecting these criminals as sources at all costs. I can understand the protection of those that led e.tv to the criminals, but I am battling with the protection of the gun-toting criminals themselves. e.tv should have been at the forefront of handing these people over to the police so that in the future they know they can’t advertise their evil deeds and threaten the country. But I do not have all the answers. The courts will shed light on this further in the coming days.
This storyline is the dilemma that should face all South Africans about the responsibilities that come with whatever freedoms we exercise. Unfortunately, freedom is not free. There are certain responsibilities that can be too heavy to bear for everyone. It is important in a democracy that freedom of the press is guaranteed. The press should be able to serve as an estate of checks and balances. If this estate is destroyed by a gung-ho attitude towards the resolution of crime, how are people supposed to come forward with evidence that will help track down the law breakers?
As we run ahead of ourselves thinking about a quick fix to tracking down the apparently easy-to-catch criminal, we need to ask ourselves how, in the bigger scheme of things, are we going to dismantle the syndicates of crime and corruption if we dislodge the cloak of anonymity? How are we going to protect those who blow the whistle? In the recent past, how many cash-in-transit robberies have been foiled due to a tip-off to the police? Imagine if those that give a tip-off were made to appear in court?
Now, back to the movie house. The American television series glorifies the witness-protection services and the way the attorneys negotiate all kinds of plea bargains for hard-core criminals to be used as bait to catch the syndicate leaders. This seems like something reasonable to learn from there — the importance of using access to the law to catch the bigger fish and not to persecute those like journalists — who can in future become part of the arsenal to fight crime.
Is it possible to find a balance? Would it have been difficult for the police to have quietly gone to meet with e.tv managers to find an amicable way out of this without resorting to laws that should probably have been repealed by now. Should the police make enemies of the very press they may need in future for information? Or should they be attempting to turn them into allies to help defeat the criminal paradise that we are becoming?
The only reason we are busy debating this instead of receiving news of further arrests of criminals is perhaps because of the new way of fighting crime in South Africa — political grandstanding and using fear tactics as a panacea for all crime problems. Maybe the people who are perpetrators are not even watching the news bulletin where these supposed threats are being made, which defeats the strategy of striking fear into the hearts of criminals.
When all is said and done, we need to make the Constitution work for all of us in making our country a safe place to live and work. Let cool heads prevail in the resolution of this dilemma — there are no easy gung ho or purist answers to a complex problem of defeating crime in our society.