/ 19 January 2010

Subpoenas slammed after World Cup storm

E.tv on Tuesday declined to reveal how it would respond to the subpoenas served on two of its staff members who aired interviews with criminals planning to target the 2010 World Cup.

“We are not going to talk about our strategy in the media,” Vassili Vass, head of publicity at the independent station, said.

He declined to say whether e.tv had taken recourse to a 1999 interim agreement between the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), the ministries of justice and police and the prosecuting authority that provides for mediation in such cases.

The agreement states that a media group served with a subpoena to reveal its sources can ask that the matter be referred to the National Director of Public Prosecutions, who could then initiate mediation to resolve the dispute and keep the matter out of court.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga said the matter was with the police, not the National Prosecuting Authority.

eNews news editor Ben Said and reporter Mpho Lakaje have been subpoenaed to appear in court next week unless they provide the police with the names and addresses of two self-confessed criminals featured in a programme on the Soccer World Cup.

The two were shown with their faces obscured, one wearing a stocking over his head and the other loading a firearm. One man said he would rob visitors during the Cup, and the other that he would shoot his way out of any confrontation with the police.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa accused eNews of “regrettable and reckless harbouring of criminals” by concealing their identities. He also demanded that the journalists supply the unedited version of the footage aired last Friday as well as information about the firearm featured in it.

His spokesperson, Zweli Mnisi, said the ministry was aware of the agreement with Sanef but could not comment on whether it would be implemented in this case.

“Any comment will be used against us in this matter,” he told the South African Press Association.

Mthethwa has said that the men interviewed by e.tv had made themselves guilty of intimidation and should be arrested immediately.

He also accused eNews of being sensationalist and engendering “fear and hysteria” by repeatedly airing the footage.

The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), meanwhile, said that it was “appalled” that section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act had been invoked against these journalists. “Sanef strongly believes that a journalist’s independence and credibility is jeopardised if he or she were seen by the public to be willing informants of the police or other official.

“Journalists should not be used as freelance information-gatherers for the police.”

The Congress of the People (Cope) on Tuesday expressed its objection the journalists being subpoenaed to reveal their criminal sources.

The recent exposé was disturbing, but attacking journalists for the failures of government to solve the problem of crime and it’s root cause, poverty, is not going to make any difference, Cope said.

That government would waste time and money in persecuting journalists is surely no more than an expensive exercise in saving face.

According to Cope, the subpoenas against these journalists are also an attack on one of the pillars of a functional democracy — the free press and the fundamental rights of journalists to protect their sources.

Meanwhile, e.tv has identified a man who committed suicide in Soweto on Tuesday as an underworld source who set up the interviews with the criminals that have landed the station in trouble with the police.

It denied a statement by the Hawks that the man who poisoned himself was one of the self-confessed criminals who threatened to target World Cup visitors.

“eNews would like to confirm that this man was our source for a recent story where we interviewed two members of the criminal underworld. This man was our only link to those criminals,” e.tv communications manager Vass said.

“He helped us of his own free will. We send our deepest condolences to the family of the man involved.”

The e.tv statement on the suicide suggests that the reporters did not know the true identities of the men they interviewed.

Earlier the Hawks said they believed the suicide victim was one of those featured in the footage.