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Protection of sources: M&G is fighting solo

By Akanyang Merementsi

From 2009, the Mail & Guardian has revealed shocking details of corruption in tenders awarded to Bosasa by the department of correctional services. This was also at the same time the company was investigated for other corruption-related activities dating back to 2004/2005.

This week, the newspaper has been fighting a court battle with Bosasa. The company wants the newspaper to reveal its sources – an unreasonable request considering the freedom our media enjoys in the country.

As I write this, both the company and the newspaper are awaiting judgment on the matter.

It would be a sad day if the court ruled in the company’s favour: that the newspaper should reveal its sources and hand over all the other requested documents (that it may want to use as evidence in proving its innocence, if ever). If the court should rule in the M&G‘s favour, it will be a great victory for the newspaper especially taking into account its commitment to fight to the bitter end (my emphasis) to protect its sources.

Bosasa sought to use the UK’s Leveson Inquiry into the “hackgate” saga involving News International titles. Like the M&G’s lawyers argued before the court, I doubt this UK argument by the company would stick because surely the laws regarding media freedom are not the same in the two countries.

I am not sure if I’m being unreasonable or if it is indeed the case that the South African media – be it print, online and/or broadcast media except the M&G itself – has been very quiet on the challenge the newspaper faces. I pray to God it is not the former.

My concern (assuming the above observation is true) is that if the judgment sways on the side of Bosasa and not the M&G, it would have a great and detrimental impact on not only print, but also broadcast and online media. It would mean all media platforms (broadcast, print and online) would from now on be forced to reveal their sources despite undertaking to fight tooth and nail (my emphasis) to protect them. It is therefore very clear that no one with information – however incriminating – would dare approach newspapers with the hope of an independent investigative journalism exposé as they would have before. No one would dare risk their lives.

The case, sadly, happens at the time when the media is under great threat by the government’s proposed regulations – the Protection of State Information Bill, the Media Appeals Tribunal etc – which are widely regarded as attempts to silence investigative journalism and whistleblowers. This is despite the fact that freedom of the press and freedom to receive/impart information is enshrined in the Constitution.

My concern is exacerbated by the fact that there were only two organisations – the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and the press freedom NGO Section 16 – that joined the battle to help the M&G fight to protect its sources. Although Sanef represents many newspapers in the country, one would have expected individual newspapers to use their editorials (especially during this week) to express their concern about the impact Bosasa’s threat – if confirmed by the court – would have on the industry in general.

It is in cases such as this one – another example being Independent Newspapers’ successful court bid to gain access to the ANC’s “brown envelope journalism” report involving one of its titles – that the media has to stand together, hand in hand, and not seen to be drifting apart especially when the judgment, if ruling against one of their peers, would have a greatly negative impact on them doing their jobs.

One would have also expected opposition parties who were pro-press freedom (Cope, DA and IFP) to back the newspaper. In fact the DA and IFP asked government to launch a probe into the Bosasa saga a few years back, but none of these parties have come forth to defend media freedom and the protection of sources and whistleblowers in this case.

What does this say about our media? Is this a sign that each media house should fight its own battles?

I remember vividly that when Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi Wa Afrika was arrested after exposing the multi-million rand property rental scandal involving Bheki Cele in 2010 – an act which, it later emerged, was politically motivated – many newspapers and editorials expressed great concern on the negative impact his arrest would have on the Sunday Times and investigative journalism in this country.

Another case in point involves the M&G and the Presidency over the latter’s refusal to release a report on Zimbabwe’s 2002 election, claiming it contains confidential information for the eyes of the president only (my emphasis). The case, which began in 2009, has since been sent by the Constitutional Court back to the court that last heard the case to determine (probably by reading) whether the report contains sensitive and confidential diplomatic information, as has always been claimed by the Presidency.

I do not remember reading newspaper editorials in support of the M&G at that time, which should’ve said that the report – commissioned by former president Thabo Mbeki to investigate whether the 2002 election was free and fair as was declared by South Africa and Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF at the time – should be released as it is in the public interest. None.

It is therefore sad, if not shocking, that at the time when all pro-press freedom supporters should be coming together and supporting each other – whichever way possible – the M&G seems to be fighting its battles alone, with just two other organisations supporting them.

I personally support the M&G‘s fight to protect its sources because, like the Guardian‘s Nick Cohen eloquently put it on February 5, “The maxim that journalists must never reveal their sources is about the only moral principle we have. At its noblest, it recognises debts of honour.”

Cohen said: “Informants give you information in the public interest and say that their career, liberty or life depend on keeping their name confidential. You promise to protect them and must keep your word. More prosaically, journalists reason that if we reveal sources, other sources will not take the risk of speaking to us in the future.”

But M&G, it seems you’re on your own.

Akanyang Merementsi is a 26-year-old male working in the South African mining industry. He is a self-confessed media freak and is passionate about the industry. He also enjoys politics. Akanyang blogs at www.akanyangafrica.wordpress.com

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