More Maharaj revelations come to light

President Jacob Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj stands accused of receiving millions in bribes from French arms maker Thales, the company that will be at the centre of the government’s arms deal inquiry next year, the Sunday Times

We talk to M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes about Mac Maharaj’s accusations that the paper is ‘invoking fears of censorship’, and the plan in going forward with the story.
The paper said that an investigation had uncovered that Schabir Shaik, Zuma’s former financial adviser who was convicted of corruption in the arms deal trial, was the conduit used by Thales to channel the money to Maharaj’s wife Zarina.

The paper said it had obtained a consultancy agreement between Thales predecessor Thompson CSF and Shaik’s company Minderley Investments, registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The Sunday Times said the agreement shows that secret payments totalling 1.2-million French francs (R2.3-million) went from the arms dealer’s French bank to offshore bank accounts belonging to Maharaj’s wife Zarina two months before her husband’s department awarded the French company a controversial credit card licence tender worth R265-million.

Documents from the Swiss district attorney’s office, which obtained court orders for statements of Zarina and Shaik’s Swiss bank accounts, show Shaik’s company was used as a conduit to channel the Thales money to Zarina’s accounts, said the paper.

It is believed the Scorpions were unable to obtain this agreement, and that this ultimately torpedoed their corruption investigation into Maharaj in 2007.

Maharaj declined to respond to detailed questions on his wife’s secret offshore payments from Thales via Shaik’s Swiss bank accounts. “These issues” had been investigated by the Scorpions who “did not bring any charges against either of us”, he told the paper.

The Mail & Guardian published its regular Friday edition with the majority of the lead article, and sections of an editorial blacked out.

The paper had been threatened with criminal prosecution and civil court action by Maharaj.

“The facts are simple: our story would have shown that Mr Maharaj lied when questioned under oath by the Scorpions in the course of investigations flowing from the arms deal,” said editor-in-chief Nic Dawes.

“In seeking to prevent publication, either by a court interdict or the threat of criminal investigation, Mr Maharaj has one objective: to avoid answering to the South African public for either the suspicious payments, or his lies about them.”

Charges laid
Maharaj on Saturday formally laid a charge against the Mail & Guardian and two of its senior journalists, Stefaans Brümmer and Sam Sole.

After sending questions to Maharaj on Wednesday this week, the M&G received a letter on Thursday afternoon from Maharaj’s lawyers warning of potential criminal prosecution if M&G published the story.

After charges were laid on Saturday, Dawes said: “There’s absolutely no basis for criminal charges against Sam and Stefaans or the Mail & Guardian”.

Dawes said there had been no clarity on what the precise charges were.
“I’ve got no idea what the charge is—being in possession of documents is not a crime and that’s why I saw there’s no basis for criminal prosecution.”

The charges are a result of an article the newspaper decided to hold back over threats of criminal prosecution that could carry a jail term of up to 15 years.

Following the M&G‘s forced suppression, Maharaj released a brief statement on Thursday night accusing the paper of seeking “to hide its complicity in criminal acts by raising the spectre of a threat to media freedom and invoking fears of censorship”.

Dawes said: “What’s going on here is very simple, Mac Maharaj wants to know who our sources are, he wants to know how much information we have about the serious allegations against him that were raised in investigations flowing from the arms deal and he’s trying to abuse the resources of the police and the state in general to secure that information and to distract the public from the questions he ought to be answering.”

“We have broken no laws and we will continue to work to bring South Africans information that is their right to know.”

Read the letter from Maharaj’s lawyers here.

Section 28
The story was published with large black print covering sections of the article that were deemed by Maharaj’s attorneys as contravening the National Prosecuting Authority Act that makes it an offence to disclose evidence gathered in camera by a section 28 inquiry.

Under section 28 of the Act, individuals can be subpoenaed to testify under oath.

The section can also compel people to hand over relevant evidence. This was used to empower NPA and Scorpions investigations. Under section 41, sub-paragraph 6 of the Act, disclosure of any information gathered from a section 28 interview is a criminal offence. Maharaj and Mathews Phosa have in the past deemed section 28 of the Act unconstitutional.

Maharaj has said the M&G could not have attained the documents lawfully and it was “in blatant and wilful contravention of provisions of the Act”.

“In the name of press freedom the M&G arrogates to itself the ‘right’ to break the law that has been on our statute books since 1998. Their editor Nic Dawes acknowledges as much when he states that they will now seek the permission of the national director of public prosecution, [Advocate] Menzi Simelane, for ‘permission to disclose the relevant material’. In short they want the NDPP [National Director of Public Prosecutions] to retrospectively give them legal protection against their unlawful actions,” he said.

“Through their sensational and at times distorted reportage, they want to deflect attention from their wrong doing and depict my upholding of my rights embodied in our laws as a threat to media freedom,” he added.

‘I will take action’
A letter from Maharaj’s lawyers, BDK Attorneys, contended that the article by Sole and Brümmer quoted excerpts from an inquiry held under section 28 of the Act.

“We advise you that to the best of our knowledge the [director] has not authorised the disclosure of the inquiry or any part thereof,” it said.

The letter warned of “the consequences the use of unlawfully and illegally obtained information had on a publication such as the [British] News of the World”.

It said that unless it received an undertaking by 4pm on Thursday that any information drawn from records of the inquiry would not be published, Maharaj would consider appropriate action against Brümmer, Sole and the M&G.

‘Vital public interest’
Dawes said the information that Maharaj was trying to keep under wraps was “of vital public interest”.

“We have no intention of bowing to his threats.

“We believe that we have every right to publish the information which raises serious questions about the conduct of the man who speaks on behalf of the president.

“However, faced with threats of both civil and criminal action, we have been advised by our lawyers to withhold publication pending an application to the national director of public prosecutions for permission to disclose the relevant material.

We hope that the director, Menzi Simelane, will demonstrate government’s professed commitment to transparency,” he said.

For more news on the arms deal visit our special report.