Editors’ forum hits out at Zondo for ‘criminalising journalism’

The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has come out in defence of journalists after Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo lambasted the media for publishing leaked witness statements submitted to the state capture inquiry.

In a statement released on Tuesday night, Sanef expressed “deep concern” over Zondo’s criticism, adding that the forum was never consulted about the rules of the commission despite numerous attempts to engage on this matter.

“When they were first distributed last year, we immediately made contact with the commission and telephonically outlined our objections,” Sanef said.

According to the statement, a meeting that was planned for the first day of the commission did not take place despite Sanef representatives availing themselves.

Another meeting was planned after Zondo took the media to task in 2018, but this too did not pan out, Sanef said.

Zondo’s criticism referenced articles published in certain newspapers over the weekend, which contained allegations against high-profile state officials, including Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane. The allegations formed part of former Bosasa chief operating officer Angelo Agizzi’s evidence, but the details of these claims had yet to be revealed in his oral testimony.

READ MORE: Zondo slams ‘money-hungry’ media

Regulation 11(3) of the commission’s governing rules stipulates that:“No person shall without the written permission of the Chairperson(a) disseminate any document submitted to the Commission by any person in connection with the inquiry or publish the contents or any portion of the contents of such document; or(b) peruse any document, including any statement, which is destined to be submitted to the Chairperson or intercept such document while it is being taken or forwarded to the Chairperson.”

Regulation 12(2)(c)(ii) goes on to state that any person who contravenes Regulation 11 “is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction … to a fine, or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months”.

On Tuesday, Zondo questioned whether journalists and editors had chosen to publish these articles in the interest of the public.

He added that it seemed newspapers are more interested in making money or in beating out their competitors by getting the scoop on allegations of state capture. “But there is nothing in the public interest,” Zondo asserted.

“Sanef believes that in principle the media and the public have the right to access documents submitted to the commission and that the media has the right to publish such documents,” the statement reads, adding that the right of the media are protected in the Constitution.

Sanef said they believe the commission’s regulations “criminalise journalism” and expressed its support of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) in its efforts to challenge the rules.

The Mail & Guardian, MMA and the Daily Maverick are currently preparing a legal challenge against the commission concerning the right of the media to access documents submitted to the commission, as well as the media’s right to publish such documents.

As Agrizzi’s testimony unfolds, the role of the media in exposing Bosasa has also been discussed.

During his testimony on Tuesday, Agrizzi detailed the events following a media reports that revealed details of alleged impropriety in the awarding of prisons’ contracts to Bosasa by the department of correctional services.

Agrizzi called one 2009 M&G report “one of the most accurate articles” on Bosasa’s dealings with the department.

The M&G had previously published exposés of collusion between Bosasa and senior correctional services officials, including former prisons’ boss Linda Mti and his confidante, the correctional services department’s former chief financial officer, Patrick Gillingham. Mti’s payment allegedly included free air tickets, hotel accommodation and paying for the design of his luxury home in Midrand.

Bosasa reportedly received nearly R3-billion in contracts from the department. The controversial company’s web of influence also extended to the departments of justice, home affairs, transport and some provincial departments.

The M&G revealed that confidential documents were leaked to Bosasa by Gillingham, sometimes months in advance of a tender being publicised. The company also allegedly had access to tender documents for major prison projects worth hundreds of millions of rands before they were advertised.

Last week Agrizzi confirmed that he had personally paid Gillingham bribes. The SIU had previously said Gillingham was paid “at least” R2.1-million in bribes, including cars for him and his children and air tickets.

In 2012, Bosasa took the M&G to court, after it asked the newspaper to turn over notes and recordings of interviews with sources, source documentation and unpublished drafts of stories relating to the company. Bosasa lost the case and was denied an appeal.

Agrizzi’s testimony continues on Wednesday.

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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