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Editor, journalist to be arrested … or are they?

Was the Sunday Times guilty of crying wolf when it reported that its editor and another journalist would be arrested on charges of contravening the National Health Act?

On Sunday, the newspaper reported that editor Mondli Makhanya and deputy managing editor Jocelyn Maker would be arrested this week on charges related to the theft of the health minister’s health records. No sooner had the story appeared, however, than the Sunday Times started backtracking.

On Monday, we were told that Makhanya and Maker would voluntarily report to police if required. On Tuesday, a lawyer representing Makhanya and Maker said that he hadn’t actually seen a charge sheet or been officially informed about the impending arrests. On Wednesday, the National Prosecuting Authority denied that it had planned at any stage to arrest Makhanya and Maker, or that the two had even been formally identified as suspects.

It may be that the Sunday Times‘s report and the outcry that followed forced the NPA to change its mind. But that seems unlikely, because the original report was already on shaky ground.

Though the newspaper stated as fact that Makhanya and Maker would be arrested this week, one had to read down to the sixth paragraph to find the source for this intelligence: a Cape Town lawyer who represents two people — not Makhanya and Maker — who had been questioned by police in the course of the investigation, and who told him police had told them that Makhanya and Maker “would be hauled off to court”. In other words, fourth-hand hearsay.

Much of the subsequent outcry was based on the mistaken assumption that there was a firm intention on behalf of the police to arrest the two. Part of the blame for this lies with other media, which widely misreported the Sunday Times‘s report based on a misreading of the source. Even the normally reliable Reuters got it wrong: “The Sunday Times quoted Cape Town lawyer Steve Broekman, representing the two (Makhanya and Makings), as saying they would be taken to court before the end of the week,” the news agency reported. The Sunday Times, of course, said nothing of the sort, and neither did Broekmann (Reuters got his name wrong too).

There is no doubt that the investigation into this affair is a ridiculous case of overkill and looks like an effort to get even with the Sunday Times for embarrassing the health minister. According to the Sunday Times, police have also been tapping journalists’ phones, examining their phone records and “digging up dirt”, which, if true, would be a serious abuse of power. But having got it wrong about the main thesis of their story, how credible is the rest of the Sunday Times‘s report?

At a time when we are facing real threats to media freedom, and when enmity towards the media seems to permeate every level of government, exaggerating the dangers is not smart. You may well find people ignoring you when you really need help.