Finance minister Trevor Manuel has issued a stern threat of legal consequences for journalists who may want to report details of his court battle with arms deal activist Terry Crawford-Browne.
Newspapers should not repeat Crawford-Browne’s allegation that Manuel was guilty of corrupt or criminal misconduct in the 1999 deal to buy warships, jets and submarines. Anyone doing so may make themselves an “accessory” to defamation, even if the allegation is made in court papers, Liuba Baldjiev of law firm Hofmeyr Herbstein and Gihwala wrote in a letter to the Mail & Guardian.
In March Manuel won an interim interdict that prohibits Crawford-Browne from accusing him of corruption and other criminal misconduct in the arms deal. The Finance Minister is applying to make that interdict permanent and to have Crawford-Browne declared a vexatious litigant.
Crawford-Browne responded with a contempt of court application against Manuel over his alleged failure to comply with an earlier court order to hand over documents relating to the arms deal, but lost.
Manuel’s legal team believes Crawford-Browne is abusing the court process to go on making the allegations and say they have solicited an advocate’s opinion as to whether the interdict prohibits him from making the claims, even in court.
“[A]ssuming in Crawford-Browne’s favour that he is not prohibited from making allegations of corruption and criminal conduct in papers filed at court — he is most certainly not permitted to circulate these papers outside of court to journalists in the knowledge that they will be tempted to publish the defamatory matter in question,” Baldjiev wrote.
The allegations are untrue, she said, and anyone thinking of publishing them should at the very least afford Manuel a “reasonable” opportunity to respond.
In an apparent threat to sue, she said: “Failure to behave as suggested — would be irresponsible journalism and you would be deprived of the defence of reasonable journalism in proceedings arising from the publication of defamatory matter.”
The letter closes on an even clearer threat of legal action.
“Now that you are aware of the [interdict granted against Crawford-Browne] we are confident that you will in any event refrain from publishing allegations you receive from Crawford-Browne. For you to do so would render you an accessory to the offence of contempt of court”.