Sekunjalo Investments, owned by businessperson Iqbal Survé, has laid charges against the Sunday Times, its editor Phylicia Oppelt and one of its journalists, Bobby Jordan.
The company said it the charges related to an article written by Jordan about a draft provisional report by the public protector. The report alleged collusion or tender rigging by Sekunjalo – an allegation that the company denies.
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This week, in light of the leaking of her draft provisional report into spending at Nkandla, public protector Thuli Madonsela said such leaks were illegal and unethical in terms of the Public Protector Act.
It was this comment that prompted Sekunjalo to take action, it said, which resulted in it attempting to lay criminal charges. But this was after it asked Madonsela to refer the matter to the police, and she declined to do so.
The police initially declined to open a docket, but Sekunjalo said they later reviewed this decision. But the police told Independent Newspapers that the matter was a civil, not a criminal one.
Said Sekunjalo: "The article referred to a confidential draft provisional report which was circulated to affected parties in terms of section 7 of the Public Protector Act. The public protector made it clear that her draft provisional report was confidential, may not be disseminated, and was meant only for comment by the affected parties and not for the public.
"The public protector warned explicitly, 'kindly further take note that in terms of section 7(2) of the Public Protector Act, 1994, the contents of the report is confidential. No person may disclose such (contents) … and any person that breaches the confidentiality shall be guilty of an offence'.
"The Sunday Times is well aware that the contents of draft provisional reports by the public Protector are confidential, and may not be disclosed to anyone until the public protector elects to publish her final report.
"The final report has not yet been published by the public protector. In fact, prior to the publication by the Sunday Times, the public Protector has made it clear in a press release on Friday November 29 2013, and then again on Monday 2 December 2013 that publishing extracts from the draft provisional report is 'unethical and unlawful' and that doing so contravenes section 7(2) of Act 23 of 1994."
Meanwhile, the South African National Editors' Forum issued a statement on Thursday saying it condemned Sekunjalo's move.
"We are concerned that the laying of criminal charges against journalists for doing their work might send the wrong message to employees of titles in the Independent Group. Sekunjalo has other complaint mechanisms available to them, including lodging a complaint against the Sunday Times with the press ombudsman," the organisation said.
"It is unfortunate that while the industry is fighting against the potential criminalisation of information dissemination, as provided for in the Protection of State Information Bill, we are faced with this kind of action from a company that should be our new ally in the ongoing attempts to maintain a free press in our country."