Judge: Media ban justified in Krejcir case

2012-12-06 20:04
(Picture: Supplied)

(Picture: Supplied)

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Pretoria - A ban on media attending the refugee appeal hearing of controversial Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir was justified, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ruled on Thursday.

Judge Hans Fabricius dismissed an application by the Mail & Guardian, Independent Newspapers and Media24 for a court order allowing them access to the hearing.

Last year, the organisations obtained an interim interdict to stop the hearing from continuing pending the outcome of their application for access.

Krejcir came to South Africa via the Seychelles with a false passport in 2007.

He launched an appeal after his application for refugee status in South Africa was turned down.

In 2010, the South Gautneg High Court in Johannesburg overturned the government's refusal to extradite Krejcir to the Czech Republic and ordered that his case be reheard.

The Refugee Appeal Board turned down applications by the media organisations to attend Krejcir's appeal hearing on the grounds that all refugee appeals were heard in secret, and that it had no discretion to allow journalist to attend.

The organisations contended that the board's rules gave it the discretion to grant the media access in exceptional cases, but Krejcir launched a counter-application to have the board's rules declared invalid.

The media organisations argued that Krejcir was a high profile public figure and that most of the information he now wanted to keep secret was already in the public domain.

They said the public had an interest in knowing whether a person such as Krejcir, who was suspected of having links to organised crime in South Africa, would be granted asylum.

Blanket ban

Fabricius said section 21(5) of the Refugee Act, which stated that the confidentiality of asylum applications had to be ensured at all times, was clear from a linguistic point of view.

"'All times' does in my view not mean sometimes. 'Confidential' means not intended for public knowledge," he said.

"In my view the provisions of section 21(5) are absolute in its content and do not give the board any discretion to allow the press access in so-called 'appropriate' cases."

He said the section infringed upon the freedom of the press and other media, and the freedom to receive or impart information or ideas as provided for by the provisions of the Constitution.

However, he ruled that the blanket ban on access by the public was justified.

He said the integrity of the asylum system, the safety of witnesses, the fact that a refugee might be unwilling to return to his country of origin, the asylum-seeker's privacy and dignity interests and the general fairness of the asylum-hearing outweighed the limited interest of the applicants.

Fabricius said whatever crimes Krejcir might have committed in South Africa were irrelevant, as only crimes committed prior to entry of the country of refuge were relevant under the provisions of the Refugees Act.

"According to various newspaper reports of some weeks ago, all criminal charges were withdrawn against the second respondent [Krejcir]," he said.

"If any acts committed in South Africa are relevant, closing the hearing has virtually no impact at all on the right and opportunity of the media to report on such.

"They would be able to attend any relevant criminal court hearing."

He said that if there was legitimate public interest to know on what grounds Krejcir could be granted asylum, then the interest had to "yield" to more general public interest in the integrity of the asylum system.

Fabricius also granted Krejcir's counter-application and declared that the Refugee Appeal Board rules published in the Government Gazette in September 2003 were invalid.

He said it was clear that the board had no power to make rules during the period in which the board had not even existed as a legal entity, and when there had been no empowering legislation in place for it to act.

- SAPA
Read more on:    radovan krejcir  |  media
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