Strange world we live in, Uncle Mac

2011-11-19 12:43

Strictly speaking, presidential ­spokesperson and former Cabinet ­minister Mac Maharaj exercised his rights in law by threatening the Mail & Guardian newspaper with legal ­action –and, more alarmingly, its editor with jail – if it ran the story it was preparing.

Maharaj has won the first round. The M&G hit the streets on Friday with virtually most of its ­report on Maharaj blacked out.

Maharaj will probably spend the weekend ­feeling self-satisfied, believing he has stopped the media from reporting the story.

What we are allowed to know is that the paper got possession of excerpts from an inquiry held under section 28 of the National Prosecuting ­Authority Act which relate to evidence given in camera. According to the act, such information may not be revealed to outside parties without the permission of the National Director of Public Prosecutions. The M&G has asked for permission.

Maharaj’s actions – coming as they did in the week in which Siyabonga Cwele, minister of state security, told Parliament that those seeking a public interest clause to the Protection of State Information Bill were doing the bidding of foreign agencies and governments – clearly ­demonstrate the government’s double speak on media freedom.

If ever Cwele needed a reminder of why civil society formations insist on a public interest clause to the bill, he has not had to wait too long. Maharaj’s reaction to the M&G story ­demonstrated the double bind that comes with professing commitment to freedom of expression while insisting on laws that seek to suppress it.

Maharaj’s argument was legalistic, relying on the law as it stands now. He did not argue that there was no public interest in the M&G ­publishing the report.

To threaten such drastic legal action without contesting the truth or arguing a cogent moral or political case as to why the paper should not ­proceed throws us back to the days when ­irrational laws were enforced with the utmost ­severity for no other reason than that they ­existed in the rule book.

Maharaj is no ordinary South African. He is a legendary freedom fighter and now speaks on ­behalf of the First Citizen of our country. While he is entitled to defend his reputation, he must never forget that his actions reflect not only on himself but on his principles and the freedom movement to which he gave most of his adult life.

If he believes his rights as a private citizen are inconsistent with the values of the ­government he serves, maybe he should do the honourable thing and quit.

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