Victory

2014-10-01 00:00

THE Witness and Beeld newspapers “ambushed” the Nkandla disciplinary hearings yesterday, winning a historic victory for press freedom.

Despite state objections and complaints the internal Public Works inquiry had been “gatecrashed”, lawyers for the papers’ publishing company Media24 won full media access to the key first hearing against Nkandla project manager Jean Rindel.

The Witness understands the 12 other disciplinary hearings against civil servants on the R246 million Nkandla project would now also be open — and experts said future “closed” internal government hearings would likely be open to media given the “important precedent for press freedom” set yesterday.

The state has charged Rindel and other officials with misconduct for allegedly wasting tens of millions of rand on the upgrade to President Jacob Zuma’s private home.

Rindel was the official who revealed Zuma had personally set deadlines on his upgrade, according to the public protector’s report.

“[The media] are going to hear all my sins now … but this needs to be open and I’m happy about that,” Rindel said.

The employees, who have denied all charges, say they were “scapegoats” ordered to hire overpriced subcontractors by cabinet-level officials. Another staffer told The Witness their testimony would be “damaging” to “highest level” politicians.

The inquiry heard disciplinary hearings normally featured no lawyers and almost never had press access — except in the high profile case of senior prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach.

Yesterday’s event saw prosecutor Lynette Naidoo flanked by “an army of advocates” representing the state, according to the employees’ lone union representative, Roshan Lil-Ruthan.

The labour officer said it was unfair that, like the other accused, Rindel was up against a phalanx of top legal minds, but could not afford legal representation himself.

The Witness has established Rindel’s case alone would call up to 15 witnesses. Hearing chairperson Joe Nxusani said testimony should begin when the case resumes on December 1.

Yesterday’s proceedings were dominated by arguments over press access after Media24’s lawyers, senior advocate Andrea Gabriel and media attorney Willem De Klerk, arrived uninvited, along with the reporters.

Gabriel applied for press access on several grounds including the Constitutional right to free expression.

Naidoo objected, saying the hearing would deal with private contracts, and was “by definition a closed proceeding”.

She told Nxusani the media interest was spurred by the “incorrect” assertion by Rindel and other members there was a conspiracy to blame them for the alleged misconduct of senior government figures.

However, Gabriel successfully argued they were not going to ask what Rindel had said to his wife the night before.

“We are going to hear about the R246 million in public spending on the president’s private residence. There are allegations already out there these employees are being used as scapegoats. Nkandlagate is a matter of immense public scrutiny … [Media24] not only have a right, they have an obligation to [cover] a matter of such national and public interest.”

In a grim moment for the state prosecutor, Nxusani fished out his personal copy of the Constitution and noted free expression was a “primary … not a secondary right”. He ruled that it was “appropriate and just” the application be granted.”

Rindel remains convinced that he and his fellow accused were “victims of a high level conspiracy”.

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