National

Maharaj accuses media of 'character assassination'

Staff Reporter

Mac Maharaj has shrugged off allegations of unlawful conduct that he and his wife Zarina received millions of rands from French arms company, Thales.

Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj has shrugged off allegations of unlawful conduct that he and his wife Zarina received millions of rands from French arms company, Thales which will be at the centre of the government’s arms deal inquiry next year.

Maharaj on Sunday said the Sunday Times report, despite publishing an extensive report over two pages, had not found the space to publish his three-sentence emailed response to the paper in full.

We talk to M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes about Mac Maharaj’s accusations that the paper is ‘invoking fears of censorship’, and the plan in going forward with the story.
Instead, it had selected parts of his response for publication and this had consciously limited the public’s awareness of what he had said.

“The fact that the Scorpions did not bring any charges against either of us should make you alive to the fact that the reported insinuations and allegations of unlawful conduct by us implied in your questions may once again result in, and subject us to character assassination and trial by media consciously making use of selective information only,” Maharaj stated in his reply to the Sunday Times.

“These issues belong to matters that were investigated by the Scorpions. Neither Zarina Maharaj nor I are prepared to subject ourselves to a separate and additional investigation by a member of the media based on isolated aspects of a comprehensive investigation conducted by institutions established and empowered by law to do so,” he stated.

Suppression
The Mail & Guardian was forced to pull back on publishing a story about Maharaj in last Friday’s edition after threats of criminal prosecution.

Following the M&G‘s forced suppression, Maharaj released a brief statement on Thursday night accusing the paper of seeking “to hide its complicity in criminal acts by raising the spectre of a threat to media freedom and invoking fears of censorship”.

M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes said: “What Mac Maharaj has been doing from the beginning in this situation has been attempting to make this conversation about the media and how the media behaves when clearly the real issue is him and the fact that he lied to the Scorpions and took money from a company that was contracted to his government department ... he can say what he likes about character assassination but that won’t change the fact about his own behaviour.”

“Frankly, he’s very lucky that its the discretion of the media that he’s subjected to rather than the investigation by law enforcement authorities that is clearly warranted.”

Suspend him
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has since called on President Jacob Zuma to suspend Maharaj without delay.

Stuart Farrow, the DA’s spokesperson on transport, said he would ask Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to investigate the allegations.

According to the Sunday Times report, secret payments totalling R3.2-million were paid into Zarina’s offshore bank accounts shortly before Thales was awarded a R265-million tender by the department of transport, which Maharaj headed at the time.

The payments were made via Swiss bank accounts belonging to Schabir Shaik’s company Minderley Investments, which the newspaper said was used as a conduit by Thales and its predecessor Thompson CSF.

Shaik, Zuma’s former financial advisor, was convicted of corruption in 2005.

According to the newspaper, it had obtained a copy of a consultancy agreement between Thompson CSF and Minderley Investments, which had never before been disclosed.

“It is believed the Scorpions were unable to obtain this agreement and that this ultimately torpedoed their corruption investigation into Maharaj in 2007,” the newspaper reported.

Charges laid
Maharaj on Saturday formally laid a charge against the M&G and two of its senior journalists, Stefaans Brümmer and Sam Sole.

After sending questions to Maharaj on Wednesday this week, the M&G received a letter on Thursday afternoon from Maharaj’s lawyers warning of potential criminal prosecution if M&G published the story.

After charges were laid on Saturday, Dawes said: “There’s absolutely no basis for criminal charges against Sam and Stefaans or the Mail & Guardian”.

Dawes said there had been no clarity on what the precise charges were. “I’ve got no idea what the charge is—being in possession of documents is not a crime and that’s why I saw there’s no basis for criminal prosecution.”

“What’s going on here is very simple, Mac Maharaj wants to know who our sources are, he wants to know how much information we have about the serious allegations against him that were raised in investigations flowing from the arms deal and he’s trying to abuse the resources of the police and the state in general to secure that information and to distract the public from the questions he ought to be answering.”

“We have broken no laws and we will continue to work to bring South Africans information that is their right to know.”

Read the letter from Maharaj’s lawyers here.

Section 28
The story was published with large black print covering sections of the article that were deemed by Maharaj’s attorneys as contravening the National Prosecuting Authority Act that makes it an offence to disclose evidence gathered in camera by a section 28 inquiry.

Under section 28 of the Act, individuals can be subpoenaed to testify under oath.

The section can also compel people to hand over relevant evidence. This was used to empower NPA and Scorpions investigations. Under section 41, sub-paragraph 6 of the Act, disclosure of any information gathered from a section 28 interview is a criminal offence. Maharaj and Mathews Phosa have in the past deemed section 28 of the Act unconstitutional.

Maharaj has said the M&G could not have attained the documents lawfully and it was “in blatant and wilful contravention of provisions of the Act”.

“In the name of press freedom the M&G arrogates to itself the ‘right’ to break the law that has been on our statute books since 1998. Their editor Nic Dawes acknowledges as much when he states that they will now seek the permission of the national director of public prosecution, [Advocate] Menzi Simelane, for ‘permission to disclose the relevant material’. In short they want the NDPP [National Director of Public Prosecutions] to retrospectively give them legal protection against their unlawful actions,” he said.

“Through their sensational and at times distorted reportage, they want to deflect attention from their wrong doing and depict my upholding of my rights embodied in our laws as a threat to media freedom,” he added.

‘I will take action’
A letter from Maharaj’s lawyers, BDK Attorneys, contended that the article by Sole and Brümmer quoted excerpts from an inquiry held under section 28 of the Act.

“We advise you that to the best of our knowledge the [director] has not authorised the disclosure of the inquiry or any part thereof,” it said.

The letter warned of “the consequences the use of unlawfully and illegally obtained information had on a publication such as the [British] News of the World”.

It said that unless it received an undertaking by 4pm on Thursday that any information drawn from records of the inquiry would not be published, Maharaj would consider appropriate action against Brümmer, Sole and the M&G.

‘Vital public interest’
Dawes said the information that Maharaj was trying to keep under wraps was “of vital public interest”.

“We have no intention of bowing to his threats.

“We believe that we have every right to publish the information which raises serious questions about the conduct of the man who speaks on behalf of the president.

“However, faced with threats of both civil and criminal action, we have been advised by our lawyers to withhold publication pending an application to the national director of public prosecutions for permission to disclose the relevant material.

We hope that the director, Menzi Simelane, will demonstrate government’s professed commitment to transparency,” he said.

For more news on the arms deal visit our special report.

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