By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
Last week a controversy exploded in the South African media concerning the alleged muzzling of the press by a high flying politician with an apparently shady background involving arms deals corruption. In Zimbabwe, a partisan police force invaded the offices of a local weekly newspaper looking for evidence which might incriminate journalists who wrote a piece about an apparently failed medical aid society that has political connections.
The Mail & Guardian splashed a white on black headline which simply read “CENSORED” across an entire page of one of its editions, but the story goes a little deep than pure censorship. The paper was about to break a story concerning a presidential spokesman, Mac Maharaj, and his involvement in the notoriously corrupt South African arms deal. Allegations have been made that Maharaj had received funds from French arms dealer, Thomson-CSF.
The information leading to the intended exposure had been sourced from documents pertaining to an ‘in camera’ interview of Maharaj in terms of section 28 of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Act. Evidence gathered in camera is sacrosanct, and it is illegal to possess or publish the contents of such an interview. The Mail & Guardian’s self imposed censorship, under threat of criminal prosecution, would suggest they knew this. Government, and indeed Maharaj, appeared gleeful that they can slip under the protection of the NPA Act… a statute that even Maharaj has deemed unconstitutional!
The South African media has been quick to condemn this latest onslaught against the Mail & Guardian. The press corps is particularly sensitive about the promulgation of a new Secrecy Bill, which will gag press transparency. The media have been pushing for a waiver of certain sections of the Secrecy Bill where information, which would be vitally in the public interest, could be exposed. Government have no intention of brooking such loopholes, spreading the fear that press freedom will likely be suppressed as a result, a sure sign that the political elite are hedging against their past and future corruption or incompetence.
Coming back to Zimbabwe, the conflict between press exposé and an autocratic regime has been long standing, if not outrageously obvious. Clearly, old habits die hard. The more recent transgression against freedom involved a weekly newspaper, The Standard. They had the apparent audacity to publish an article concerning the likely demise of a floundering, but allegedly partisan or ‘connected’ medical aid society. No sooner had the piece been published, in rushed the ‘storm troopers’ to secure evidence and arrest those who dared to expose the truth. Unlike the South African breaking issue, there was no subtlety in Zimbabwe’s purge. Two journalists suffered the indignity of detention in filthy police cells for their efforts.
This is not new in Zimbabwe. The nation is on record for being one of the worst places in the world, at one stage, for journalists to practice their craft. There are many reported incidences of journalists suffered brutal torture at the hands of the regime, previously in full power. At least 15 journalists have been victims of arrest, attack and intimidation during the last six months alone according to the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ). The dominant party, which has ruled with iron fist over the last three decades, has wilfully suppressed the private press and nurtured its own puppet mouthpieces to generate its vitriol and garbage to the party faithful. An echo of Hitler’s offering that ‘the people will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one’ would be apt.
The two initiatives smack of politically inspired press muzzling to protect the backs of those who have evidently transgressed the law or suffered bouts of incompetence. This must, however, raise the motion that press ethics are being breached in their illicit solicitation of material, be this for the noble cause of creating transparency or simply to expose filth and corruption. The conundrum here is which of the two evils is better: suppression of information exposing the truth about corrupt public officials and politicians; or the unethical collection, thievery or bribery by the media to tap such sensitive information?
The public has a right to know when those they have elected fall down the slippery slopes of turpitude or fail in their duties. Does this, however, allow the press to breach the law, or indeed their ethics, to achieve an otherwise estimable purpose? It would seem that while it is abundantly clear that the public need to know of, and the press has a duty to expose, corruption and incompetence, at the highest levels, this should not be tolerated if they have blood on their hands. That would be tantamount to lowering themselves to levels of illicit activity conducted by state intelligence collection agencies, which we are all so quick to condemn.
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