Investigation is not a witch-hunt

My attempts to identify the source/s of, and to staunch, a fairly regular flow of leaked information to the press since the beginning of the arms deal joint investigation last year have led in recent weeks to allegations that I am conducting a ”witch-hunt”. I now need to rebut publicly this allegation, which has been carried most prominently in the pages of the Mail & Guardian in recent editions.

The allegation against me and my office is nothing more than a misleading inference drawn from what are entirely proper attempts to find the source of leaks to the press based on, and sometimes inaccurately derived from, confidential material. This confidential material was collected or authored by the joint arms deal investigation. It is my responsibility to undertake an internal probe into leaks. I would be failing in my responsibilities if I did not do so.

What my office and I are not in any way involved in is a mission to identify the original ”whistle-blowers” on the arms deal. That is a different matter, and it is beyond my remit and powers as auditor general to conduct such an investigation.

The issue of the media using leaked information is a sensitive one. Although the media have an important role reporting in the public interest, due care needs to be exercised when considering the errors and inaccuracies that can be published when only one source, perhaps with an agenda of his or her own, may be the provider of that information. This may have been the case in some recent reports. The story, ”Naval officer shielded by arms report changes” (January 11), may be a case in point.

That report clearly states that: ”The M&G has learned that the original drafts [of a report of the joint investigation into the arms deal] were much tougher on [Rear Admiral Johnny Kamerman than the version finally made public] — they bluntly accused him of perjury and recommended he be charged.” Not one of the investigators’ reports nor any of the draft reports accused Kamerman of perjury or recommended that he be charged. On the contrary, the draft report reflects that ”no evidence of corruption was found”.

An error of this seriousness can both damage the reputation of a newspaper for its failure to check its facts and the veracity of its sources, while also placing it in danger of being sued for loss of reputation and damages by the implicated individual.

A later story printed in the edition of March 15, entitled ”New twist in hunt for whistle-blowers” infers that I have launched a new ”probe” into the ”original” whistle-blowers who drew attention to alleged irregularities and other shortcomings in the arms deal. By so doing, the report states, I ”may well grant the executive its wish” to uncover the original sources of disquiet about the arms deal.

I wish to make clear that no such agenda exists and that current interviews conducted by my team do not have that brief. I reject the assertion that one investigation is being used to cover for another and may, by reported inference, even be at the behest of the executive. As I have said, such an investigation would be beyond my remit and powers as auditor general.

The press have developed, over the years, a set of ethics governing the proper use of highly sensitive or untested information as well as the protection of its sources. In order to safeguard its own integrity — and public reputation for integrity — my office has, similarly, developed a set of principles governing these difficult areas in order to publicly reaffirm its commitment to protecting confidentiality and safeguarding incorruptibility.

It is precisely to safeguard these ethical principles that I am currently conducting an internal investigation. By so doing, I believe I am safeguarding the public interest, the standing of my own office and my own public reputation. Indeed, I was the first to undergo the internal probe by the two investigators appointed to carry it out. This is because I am committed to personally demonstrating my office’s commitment to uncovering the sources that seek to damage the integrity of a constitutional institution. Further, leaks can also harm the rightful expectation of a ”whistle-blower”, on exposing corruption or malpractice, that he or she will be protected by the office’s confidentiality clauses and own code of ethics.

The internal investigative process entails members of staff voluntarily signing an affidavit that he or she was not the informant, having phone accounts examined and taking a lie-detector test. A number of people involved in the joint investigation team are undergoing the same exercise. They have been broadly identified in terms of their areas of responsibility in the investigative phase and in the writing of the report.

There is, then, an important distinction to be made between ”whistle-blowing” for the public good and leaking information that breaches confidentiality clauses and codes of ethics. Some media seek to present the idea that I and my team are trying to silence people, or are conducting a ”witch-hunt”. Credence is being given to the notion that there is some element of serious fraud or criminal activity that the government and the investigative agencies wish to obscure or hide. Thus any source with any kind of ”evidence” to back this notion is given credibility over and above the credibility afforded to the findings of the investigating team, the requirements and parameters of its mandate and its final Arms Procurement Report to Parliament. Indeed, I am firm in my conviction that the protection of integrity is a matter of state importance and is a principle on which I will not compromise.

Shauket Fakie is the auditor general

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