Editor Ray Hartley has denied allegations that Sunday Times journalists were paid to divert attention from officers suspected of corruption.
The allegations were made in a report compiled by Colonel Kobus Roelofse of the anti-corruption task team in March. It was included in papers submitted by the non-profit organisation Freedom Under Law in its urgent interdict to the North Gauteng High Court to prevent the reinstatement of former crime intelligence boss General Richard Mdluli to the police force.
Mdluli, together with crime intelligence finance head Solly Lazarus, has been implicated in fraud and corruption relating to the unit’s secret slush fund.
According to the report a member of crime intelligence, who was assisting in the Hawks’s investigation of Mdluli and Lazarus, heard a discussion concerning the placement of a newspaper article concerning top Hawks officials Lieutenant General Anwa Dramat and Major General Shadrack Sibiya.
The officer said Lazarus wanted to use “sources within the media” or “journalists paid by [crime intelligence]” to write a story in order to take the focus away from them and that this was a strategy used to cast suspicion on those they perceived as a threat.
According to the report, the story was published in the Sunday Times on October 23 last year.
The story in question alleged that senior officials in the Hawks and the South African Police service, together with their Zimbabwean counterparts, conducted illegal “renditions” of Zimbabwean citizens who were sent back over the border at Beit Bridge to be murdered. Both Dramat and Sibiya were named in the story.
National Press Club chairperson Yusuf Abramjee said the allegations were “very worrying and very serious”.
“Authorities need to get to the bottom of them as a matter of urgency. We need to get the facts and if there were any payments made as alleged, criminal charges should follow,” he said.
Abramjee also called on the Sunday Times to launch its own investigation into the allegations.
But Hartley defended the work of his investigations team. He said the allegations in Roelofse’s report were “made on the flimsiest of grounds and includes no supporting evidence”.
Hartley said the allegations were “an attack on the integrity” of the paper’s multiple award-winning investigative team, which has been responsible for a string of high–profile exposés of corruption, mismanagement and brutality within the South African Police Service.
“The article under question was not written on the prompting of a single ‘source’ in the police. It was the product of a lengthy investigation which included information supplied by several police officers, evidence of police entry ledgers, death certificates and the sworn affidavits of several witnesses,” he said.
“The story may or may not have been used by one or other faction in the police to further their ends in the internal dirty war that is underway in the service. That is not something which the Sunday Times has any control over,” he said.
Hartley called on Roelofse and acting national police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi to produce evidence to show that any of its journalist had been in the pay of the police or had breached the press code and said that if this was the case, the newspaper would “take the harshest action” against them.
Anton Harber, head of Wits Journalism, agreed that there was little evidence at the moment to back up the allegations.
“If somebody was paid to either run or withhold a story that would be a very serious problem. The difficulty here is that the evidence is flimsy and can’t be taken at face value because it wouldn’t be the first attempt by elements of the police to discredit the Sunday Times investigative team,” he said.
Harber said that if there was substance to the allegations it would be very damaging to the Sunday Times and to journalists in general but at this point there was insufficient evidence – names of the journalists who may have been involved have not been provided – to work with.