Journalists subpoenaed in murder case threatened with death if they testify

New York, April 27, 2001 — The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned about the safety of two South African journalists who have been subpoenaed to testify against a murderous vigilante group that has threatened to kill them if they comply.

In August 1996, journalist Kobus Louwrens and photographer Christo Lötter, both from the Cape Town newspaper Die Burger, witnessed the murder of drug dealer Rashaad Staggie by the Islamist vigilante group People Against Gangsterism And Drugs (PAGAD). The vigilantes shot Staggie and set him on fire; he died at the scene.

Many Cape Town-based news organizations, including Die Burger, sent reporters to cover the ensuing shootout between police and PAGAD members. Louwrens was hit by a stray bullet in the arm, while Lötter was injured in the foot. Photographs of the incident, including Lötter’s, appeared in several South African media outlets the next day.

Government prosecutors are now trying to compel Lötter and Louwrens to testify against PAGAD and provide them with unpublished photographs of the Staggie incident, from which the prosecutors hope to identify certain PAGAD members.

The Staggie murder case is set to resume on May 14. Die Burger has indicated that it will not cooperate with the state prosecutor’s office out of fear for the safety of its two journalists, even at the risk of facing contempt of court charges.

The prosecutors are acting under Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act: “A magistrate may, upon the request of the Attorney-General, require the attendance before him or any other magistrate, for examination by the attorney-general or a public prosecutor… of any person who is likely to give material or relevant information as to any alleged offence.”

Cape Town police have previously used Section 205 to subpoena Benny Gool, a Cape Times reporter who also witnessed the killing of Staggie (the subpoena was later withdrawn), and to search the offices of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Meanwhile, PAGAD has threatened to kill journalists who provide information to the authorities. Several witnesses and at least one magistrate involved in PAGAD-related cases have been murdered in recent years.

“We are extremely concerned about the safety of our colleagues Kobus Louwrens and Christo Lötter,” said CPJ executive director Ann K. Cooper. “In general, CPJ believes that journalists should never be forced to reveal privileged sources of information, including photographs. This is especially important in cases where revealing a source could put the journalist’s life at risk.”