M&G obtained documents unlawfully - Maharaj
Johannesburg - The Mail & Guardian obtained documents relating to a reported interview he had with the National Prosecuting Authority unlawfully, presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj said on Thursday.
Maharaj said in a statement: "Mail & Guardian seeks to hide its complicity in criminal act/s by raising the spectre of a threat to media freedom and invoking fears of censorship.
"This afternoon through my attorneys we drew their attention that they were on record admitting that they were in possession of documents that they could not have obtained lawfully.
"Their attention was drawn to the National Prosecuting Act and that they were in blatant and wilful contravention of provisions of that Act," Marahaj said.
The Mail & Guardian was expected to hit the streets on Friday with the front page featuring a picture of Maharaj alongside the words in bold: "Censored. We cannot bring you this story in full due to a threat of criminal prosecution."
According to a tweet on social networking site Twitter, its editor Nic Dawes said: "Just learned that the NPA Act has sections as bad as #secrecybill. Your M&G will look butchered tomorrow. Blame Mac Maharaj."
Dawes also posted a link to a picture of the weekly's front page for Friday, saying in another tweet: "Sorry to give you a paper that looks like this. A glimpse of life under #secrecybill."
Another picture shows a story on its inside page, headlined, "A buried trail of lies".
Big black blocks are printed over about three quarters of the page, where the story would have been published.
Dawes said the weekly had "wanted to publish information from an NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] Section 28 interview with Mac Maharaj. Apparently it's illegal to do that...
"Just like the #secrecybill the NPA Act punishes disclosure of S28 records with up to 15 years, even if you aim to reveal serious wrongdoing," tweeted Dawes.
The Act makes it an offence to disclose evidence gathered in camera by a section 28 inquiry - providing for a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail, reported the Mail and Guardian Online on Thursday evening.
Story raises questions about Maharaj's conduct
"After sending questions to Maharaj on Wednesday this week, the M&G received a letter on Thursday from Maharaj's lawyers warning of a potential criminal prosecution if we published the story," Dawes said in a statement posted on the website.
"We believe that we have every right to publish the information which raises serious questions about the conduct of the man who speaks on behalf of the president.
"However, faced with threats of both civil and criminal action, we have been advised by our lawyers to withhold publication pending an application to the national director of public prosecutions for permission to disclose the relevant material.
"We hope that the director, Menzi Simelane, will demonstrate the government's professed commitment to transparency," said Dawes.
Maharaj responded in a statement: "In the name of press freedom the M&G arrogates to itself the 'right' to break the law that has been on our statute books since 1998.
"Their editor Nic Dawes acknowledges as much when he states that they will now seek the permission of the National Director of Public Prosecution, Adv Menzi Simelane, for 'permission to disclose the relevant material'.
"In short they want the NDPP to retrospectively give them legal protection against their unlawful actions.
"Through their sensational and at times distorted reportage they want to deflect attention from their wrong doing and depict my upholding of my rights embodied in our laws as a threat to media freedom."
This came as State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said this week it would be reckless to add a public interest defence clause to the protection of state information bill, also known as the secrecy bill.
The SA National Editors' Forum has threatened legal action if the clause were left out, warning on Thursday of the consequences.
"Such a clause would enable a journalist, whistle-blower, or citizen who disclosed classified information, if charged, to enter a defence plea of publication in the public interest," Sanef said.
Sanef wants the public interest defence to be written into the bill to protect journalists who publish classified information to expose wrongdoing on the part of the state.