Police called the Mail & Guardian into warning interviews on Thursday, a step towards possible prosecution – with potential jail terms of 15 years – in a criminal complaint laid by presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj.
Editor Nic Dawes and investigative journalists Stefaans Brümmer and Sam Sole reported for the interviews and were formally warned that they are suspects in a case of theft of confidential records and for disclosing details of a confidential inquiry.
"There were informal suggestions that the same exercise will be conducted with other newspapers," Dawes said.
Maharaj laid criminal charges against the three in November last year. He said it was an exercise to protect the confidentiality of testimony by him and his wife to the Scorpions in 2003. Priority crime unit the Hawks subsequently took over the investigation, which is now being handled by the Specialised Commercial Crimes unit, an affiliate of the Hawks.
Maharaj contends that the transcript of the testimony, compelled under section 28 of the National Prosecuting Act, cannot be lawfully in the possession of the Mail & Guardian, even though it has been in the public domain for some time. City Press first published extracts of the document in March 2007 and again in late November, and Maharaj himself provided a copy to his bio-grapher. City Press on Thursday said it had not been informed that it is subject to investigation.
The contents of an inquiry held under section 28 of the Act may not be disclosed without the permission of the national director of public prosecutions and may not be used in a prosecution, except under exceptional circumstances, which includes the interviewee lying.
The M&G blacked out portions of an article that was due to be published on November 18 and has not published the content of the inquiry proceedings since.
However, it has twice applied – unsuccessfully – for the necessary permission to publish it and this month launched a High Court application seeking the same.
"The nature of this process raises concerns," Dawes said on Thursday. "There is the worry that this legislation may be used in an attempt to prevent journalists from doing their jobs and reporting important information in the public interest."
Maharaj could not be reached for comment.
Timeline leading to Hawks' swoop on journalists
Many of these events remain untested allegations, although they are extensively documented.
10 May 1994: Mac Maharaj is appointed the first transport minister in South Africa's democratic government.
December 1995 to October 1996: The transport department, under Maharaj, recommends a competing bidder for a lucrative contract to provide new driver's licences for South Africans. But the state tender board rejects the recommendation and it is eventually awarded to a consortium involving Shabir Shaik. During the same period, Shaik arranges a trip to Disney World for the Maharaj family and makes payments into local and foreign accounts held by Maharaj and his wife, Zarina.
July 1997 to November 1998: A Shaik company bids for the contract to upgrade the N3 toll road between Johannesburg and Durban. During this time, Shaik arranges for computer equipment to be installed at Maharaj's home and again makes large payments into accounts controlled by Maharaj and his wife.
November 1 2001: Noseweek magazine publishes the first report of Maharaj's links to tenders awarded to Shaik companies.
February 16 2003: The Sunday Times publishes details of payments made by Shaik to Maharaj and the Disneyland trip.
March 24 2003: City Press publishes details of Maharaj's foreign cash holdings.
June 19 2003: Mac Maharaj is summoned to give evidence in terms of section 28 of the NPA Act.
June 20 2003: Zarina Maharaj gives evidence to the same panel under the same law.
August 14 2003: FirstRand bank announces the resignation of Maharaj as a director.
December 2004: Swiss authorities provide the Scorpions with details of deposits into an account opened by Zarina Maharaj.
January 11 2005: A memorandum recommends the prosecution of Maharaj and details discrepancies in the evidence given by both Maharaj and his wife in the 2003 interviews.
July 2005: The Scorpions confront Maharaj with evidence of the Swiss bank account. Maharaj and his wife launch court applications to prevent the use of the section 28 interview and challenging the lawfulness of the Swiss information.
October 17 2005: Maharaj provides a transcript of the 2003 interviews to his biographer, Padraig O'Malley.
March 31 2007: City Press publishes extracts from the transcript of evidence given by Maharaj.
May 2008: A Swiss court rules that information on the bank account of Zarina Maharaj was provided to the Scorpions lawfully.
November 16 2011: The Mail & Guardian puts a list of questions to Maharaj relating to his evidence in 2003. Lawyers acting for Maharaj respond with a contention that possession of the records and their disclosure would be unlawful.
November 17 2011: Maharaj releases a statement accusing the M&G of invoking fears of censorship inan attempt to hide complicity in criminal acts.
November 18 2011: The M&G publishes an edited version of an article regarding the discrepancies in what Maharaj told the Scorpions and documented evidence, with references to the 2003 interviews blacked out.
November 19 2011: Maharaj announces that he has laid criminal charges against three M&G employees with regard to the transcript of the 2003 interviews.
November 20 2011: The Sunday Times publishes details of payments made to the Maharaj family.
November 21 2011: The M&G formally requests permission from the national director of public prosecutions to publish the record of the 2003 proceedings.
November 22 2011: Maharaj's criminal charges against the M&G staffers are handed to the Hawks. The unit says Maharaj's public profile and the public interest makes it a case that falls within its ambit.
November 27 2011: City Press publishes the contents of Mac Maharaj's 2003 interview.
November 29 2011: The M&G supplements its request to publish, pointing out that the record is already in the public domain.
December 14 2011: The M&G once again points out to the national director of public prosecutions that the information is already in the public domain.
January 4 2012: The acting national director of public prosecutions declines the request for permission to publish.
July 2 2012: The M&G launches a high court application to have the decision to refuse permission to publish set aside.
July 26 2012: M&G editor Nic Dawes and investigative reporters Sam Sole and Stefaans Brummer report to police for warning interviews, a step towards a decision on whether prosecution will follow. – Phillip de Wet
Information in this timeline is drawn from reports previously published by the Mail & Guardian, City Press, the Sunday Times and the South African Press Association. Our lawyers advised us to point out that it does not contain new allegations and does not draw from the section 28 inquiry transcript.