Maharaj hits back at M&G

2011-11-19 00:00

CAPE TOWN — The Mail&Guardian yesterday published a report on the presidential spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, with blocks of grey text, making it look as if the news was censored.

The paper said the report is based on information from an interview that the former crime-fighting unit, the Scorpions, held a few years ago with Maharaj in connection with their investigation of the arms deal,

The report mentions benefits that the companies of Schabir Shaik, fraudster and former financial advisor of President Jacob Zuma, were to have gained from the transport-related contracts.

There was never any proof that Maharaj, then minister of transport, had any role in the allocation of these contracts.

M&G editor Nicholas Dawes said he wants to publish this information because it is in the public interest and because the presidential spokesperson must always be credible.

He believes that the blocked-out copy serves as a warning of what can happen if the Protection of State Information Bill is accepted.

The copy was blocked out after the weekly received a letter from Maharaj’s legal representative that threatened it with legal action because the information was gained from a Scorpion interview in blatant contravention of article 28 the National Prosecuting Act.

The rules for such an interview are that the interviewee (in this case Maharaj) gives up his right to remain silent without incriminating himself.

The interviewee may not be prosecuted because of his utterances and the content of the interview may not be published without the permission of the National Director of Public Prosecutions.

The current director, Advocate Menzi Simelane, said in reply to a question that he has not received any request to make public the interview with Maharaj, but would consider such a request if it were to be made.

Maharaj said in reply to a question that he opposes the publication of the information because the context — that the information forms part of a larger investigation — would be lost, and because the interview was made subject to relevant rules at the behest of the Scorpions.

Maharaj said the rules cannot be changed now because it influences the law’s application now and in the future.

He pointed out that he did not go to court; the newspaper took the decision to block out the copy and these events have nothing to do with the draft bill on the protection of state information.

Publication would contravene a current act, which is a criminal action. Maharaj said Dawes is trying to mislead people and that it is not media freedom that is being put at risk, but adherence to the law.

Professor Anton Harber, head of Wits’ journalism department and founding editor of the Mail&Guardian, said this is not censorship in the usual sense because it is legal for investigations to be conducted in camera and no one has censored the paper.

Faan Coetzee, an expert on media law at the firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, said he believes Dawes would have been liable to go to jail if he had not blocked out the text.

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