Editorial: A heavy-handed bid to deter leaks
A City Press report that the combined might of the State Security Agency (SSA) and the police has been deployed to find out who leaked details of the public protector's preliminary report on President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla homestead to the Mail & Guardian will send a chill down the collective spine of South African journalism.
Public protector Thuli Madonsela has made it clear that her office did not request the investigation and that, because of its constitutional independence, it could not become involved in such an exercise. In other words, the authorities have taken it on themselves to meddle – and, in a pointed departure from normal practice, have confirmed what they are up to.
That prompts the suspicion that this is a heavy-handed attempt to deter leaks and whistle-blowing by state officials. The obvious risk and, presumably, purpose – is that it will drive the sources used by amaBhungane into the open and scare off anyone else who may be planning to leak information about the R200-million Nkandla home improvement scheme that will further hurt Number One.
It is also clearly calculated to bolster the fiction that the government's various attempts to put a lid on the Nkandla scandal have been driven by concerns for the president's security.
This is how the public works department played the issue during its initial stonewalling of media requests for information on Nkandla, and it was also cited to justify the elaborate secrecy that, at the outset, shrouded the ministerial task team's report.
Madonsela's preliminary findings contained security-sensitive information, the SSA and police investigation is clearly intended to suggest, so whoever leaked its contents may be guilty of a major security breach.
Two imposing pieces of evidence have given the lie to this version of events. After being confronted with a high court application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, the public works department abandoned the pretext that it was constrained by considerations for Zuma's safety and released 12 000 pages of documents relating to Nkandla, almost unredacted, to amaBhungane.
A similar double game was visible over the task team report, which the government first clutched to its breast in a frenzy of protectiveness and then released in its entirety, after the M&G's disclosures, to limit the damage.
If the spooks and the police are indeed on a mission to flush out our anonymous informants, that is deeply worrying. There is a strong body of legal opinion, supported by jurisprudence, that the Constitution upholds the rights of media practitioners to protect their sources.