Presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj has told the National Press Club he has never been involved in corruption and bribery.
In a hastily convened press conference on Tuesday morning, presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj lambasted the Mail & Guardian—and denied ever being involved in corruption and bribery.
“I have not been involved in corruption, bribery or broken any law,” he told the National Press Club in Pretoria on Tuesday.
The press conference followed a number of marches around the country protesting the Protection of State Information Bill, dubbed the secrecy Bill by activists. The Bill was passed in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.
Maharaj was reacting to criticism that he had in effect censored the M&G newspaper by preventing it from publishing allegations against him.
He countered he had evidence that the M&G had committed a criminal offence.
“I went and did what the law says. I laid a charge.”
Maharaj’s attorneys laid a charge against the M&G and two of its journalists—Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer—on Saturday for violating section 41(6) of the National Prosecuting Act of 1998.
The charges relate to Friday’s edition of the newspaper, of which the front page featured a picture of Maharaj alongside the words: “Censored. We cannot bring you this story in full due to a threat of criminal prosecution.”
According to the newspaper, Maharaj had lied to the section 28 inquiry called by the now disbanded Scorpions over allegations that he received kickbacks from French arms manufacturer Thales International.
It was this information, allegedly proving that Maharaj had lied, that the newspaper wanted to publish.
Big black blocks were printed over about three quarters of the page, where the story would have been published.
Maharaj said the decision by the newspaper to black out parts of its report had created the impression that he had done something wrong.
“You assume it proves the headline,” said Maharaj.
He said the act made it an offence to disclose evidence gathered in camera by a section 28 inquiry.
However Maharaj would not be drawn on why he was charging the newspaper, given that they did not disclose the evidence. He told a journalist who asked precisely what the paper was being charged for to go to the police station for more information.
“For the first time, I have evidence of criminality by the media,” was all he would say, adding: “We have asked the police to investigate the theft of these records.”
However he later admitted he did not know how the newspaper had received the classified information, saying it could well have been an envelope slid under the door.
But he pointed out the newspaper should have approached the director of public prosecutions before approaching him or publishing its story.
The M&G has since applied to NPA head Menzi Simelane for permission to release the information.
Should the newspaper succeed, evidence could be released showing that Maharaj lied to the Scorpions during an investigation. Lying to the unit is prohibited by section 28 of the NPA Act, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos has stated on his blog, noting that if found guilty a person “would be liable to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 15 years or to both such fine and such imprisonment”.
Continuing the theme of his defence in a weekend interview with Justice Malala on Etv, Maharaj insisted that he did not need to defend himself against published evidence that he had received bribes, as he had not been charged.
He compared the situation to breaking a traffic law and presenting oneself to the authorities for a fine.
“Will you volunteer if you have broken traffic law?” he asked journalists, who were mostly dressed in black to mourn the crackdown on press freedom. The day was labelled Black Tuesday—a stark reference to Black Wednesday in 1977.
Analysts have said Maharaj’s refusal to answer the allegations against him is worrying, given his high profile in government.
“It appears Maharaj is using a kind of legal sleight of hand to avoid answering any question of any nature,” said Business Day associate editor, Tim Cohen, in a column that Maharaj referenced in the press conference.
“His argument amounts to this: that because he considers that the information against him was obtained illegally, he has no obligation to answer any questions about it at all, even the issues that nobody disputes had not been obtained illegally.”
But Maharaj insisted his refusal to answer questions was a consequence of his belief that a court of law should decide whether there was any wrongdoing.
He said he was not prepared to subject himself to “trial by media”.
The Sunday Times has since reported that Maharaj and his wife Zarina received millions of rands in kickbacks related to the arms deal.
Maharaj said the newspaper published 800 words, but only one sentence of his three-sentence response to its questions.—Sapa and staff reporter
For more news on the arms deal visit our special report.