Judge rules on media sources

2012-04-27 07:25

A high court judgment in favour of journalists protecting confidential sources was welcomed by the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) last night.

It was a “ground-breaking decision for media freedom” in South Africa, Sanef said of the ruling in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg yesterday in a case between the Mail & Guardian and a private company.

The judgment related to a defamation action brought by Bosasa, a facilities management company, against the Mail & Guardian and its investigative reporter Adriaan Basson, Sanef said.

The newspaper published an article in 2009 which described “the corrupt relationship between Bosasa and the department of correctional services”.

According to the article, the relationship resulted in the company winning a number of multimillion-rand tenders from the department.

Sanef said that when the newspaper refused to supply the names of the sources of the information in the article, Bosasa went to court to demand that the names be revealed.

It claimed that confidential sources could be used to promote hidden agendas, disseminate propaganda or disguise lazy reporting.

According to Sanef, Judge Moroa Tsoka found that freedom of the press was fundamental to democracy.

It was essential for the public good that journalists were able to do their work and the identity of their sources should not be revealed.

“This essential and critical role of the media – which is more pronounced in our nascent democracy, founded on openness, where corruption has become cancerous – needs to be fostered rather than denuded,” he reportedly said in his judgment.

Sanef chairperson Mondli Makhanya said the judgment provided journalists with a substantial legal safeguard for the protection of their confidential sources.

Bosasa’s lawyer Jeremy Gauntlett told the court that “none of us have an absolute right to information nor do the respondents [the Mail & Guardian and Basson] have absolute right to immunity of disclosure of information they’ve chosen to rely upon”.

Rejecting the argument, Tsoka said the identity of the sources was irrelevant and that Bosasa should have dealt with the correctness of the claims in the article and not the sources’ identity.

“This judgment will remove the fears over this issue that have always dogged journalists who have before them the example of the many journalists who have been jailed for defending that principle,” said Makhanya.

He said Sanef congratulated the Mail & Guardian for taking the financial risk of pursuing this fundamental principle in an expensive court action and commended the judge for setting a new standard of media freedom in South Africa.

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