The Hawks have officially commenced their investigation into the Mail & Guardian, in connection with charges laid by presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj, and denied their probe amounted to an abuse of state resources.
An investigator from within the directorate for priority crime investigation (also known as the Hawks) has been appointed to investigate alleged violations of section 41(6) of the National Prosecuting Authority Act of 1998, Hawks spokesperson McIntosh Polela confirmed on Thursday.
On Saturday Maharaj formally laid charges against the newspaper and senior journalists Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer following a report that was due to appear in the M&G‘s November 18 edition suggesting Maharaj had lied during a section 28 inquiry by the now defunct Scorpions into his involvement in the arms deal.
Following threats of prosecution by Maharaj, and on the advice of the M&G‘s lawyers, the story was not published in full, but ran with large black blocks covering sections of the article alongside a headline reading: “Censored: We cannot bring you this story in full due to a threat of criminal prosecution.”
Once the Hawks’ investigation is complete, the case will be presented to the National Prosecuting Authority, which will then decide whether to prosecute the M&G and the two journalists.
Polela insisted there was nothing out of the ordinary in the Hawks deciding to investigate charges laid by a government official as senior as Maharaj, but denied that the Hawks had been directed by the presidency to investigate the charges.
“That’s not how we work,” said Polela. “We don’t take instructions directly from the president, or any other high-ranking officials.”
Cases are investigated at the discretion of the national commissioner of the Hawks Anwar Dramat, he said.
The director of the Institute of Security Studies’ (ISS) crime and justice programme Johan Burger said on Wednesday an investigation into the M&G by the Hawks could well be an abuse of state resources.
“If you scrutinise the SAPS Amendment Act of 2008, under which the Hawks operate, it does raise question marks over the investigation into the M&G. According to section 17(d) of that Act, it is on the prerogative of the national commissioner or the Hawks’s head to investigate cases but it is my understanding that these are for national priority offences only,” Burger said.
“We don’t only investigate priority crimes,” said Polela. “This is a matter of protocol. When you have an issue garnering such widespread public interest, and involving such a high profile person, we would investigate.”
Section 28 enquiry
Of the charges levelled by Maharaj, one relates to an alleged infringement of section 41(6) of the National Prosecuting Authority Act of 1998, which governs the dissemination of information garnered in an NPA Act section 28 enquiry.
Police were also asked to investigate a charge of theft, on the suspicion that the information in the possession of Sole and Brümmer was obtained unlawfully.
The Sunday Times followed the M&G‘s self-censored report with a story claiming Maharaj and his wife Zarina received bribes relating to the controversial arms deal.
In addition to the criminal charges, WDK Attorneys — Maharaj’s legal representatives — have not ruled out the possibility of a civil suit being launched by the presidential spokesperson in pursuit of damages against the M&G‘s Sole and Brümmer.
The M&G has since sent a letter to the NPA, formally requesting permission from the director of public prosecutions, Menzi Simelane, to publish the contentious report in its entirety, and requested a response by Friday December 3. The NPA has acknowledged receipt of the letter.
‘Waste of time’
Opposition parties have in the meantime slammed the Hawks’ investigation, labelling it a “waste of time”.
“Why would the Hawks be wasting their time on something like this?” said the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on police matters, Dianne Kohler Barnard. “A mere detective at a police station could have taken up this investigation to establish how the M&G got their hands on this report and determine how serious the charges are. It would seem that Mac Maharaj is on his own mission and it is very sad the police and Hawks are being used by politicians to fight their own battles — something that should never happen.”
This sentiment was echoed by Inkatha Freedom Party parliamentarian Mario Ambrosini, who cautioned the Hawks against allowing their priorities to become “blurred”.
“The Hawks are required to balance all interests involved in their investigations. In no way should they take actions which could have an adverse effect on the freedom of the press — something that at times should override certain state interests,” Ambrosini said.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa went as far as to suggest Maharaj had abused state resources before.
“I am afraid to say Maharaj is up to his old tricks again of using state resources to fight his battles,” said Holomisa. “He cost the country R12-million through the Hefer commission, when he falsely accused then head of the NPA Bulelani Ngcuka of being an apartheid spy. If the Hawks continue with this investigation, they will be deviating from their mandate — they should in fact look into the allegations levelled against Maharaj.”
The Hawks’s Polela confirmed the instruction to consider an investigation came as a directive from the crime busting unit’s head, Anwar Dramat. But he said this was by no means irregular or indicative of political interference.
“It is pretty standard for this to happen,” Polela said. “We get involved based on the seriousness of the allegations put forward and take our next step once we determine if it is worth investigating.”
“It was decided to [consider looking into the charges against the M&G] because of the high profile of Mac Maharaj and the interest generated in the case,” added Polela. “However, there still remains the possibility we won’t be investigating the matter further.”