The censored November issue of Mail & Guardian. (CPJ)
The censored November issue of Mail & Guardian. (CPJ)

South African journalists probed over scandal coverage

Johannesburg, July 30, 2012–South African authorities should immediately drop a criminal investigation against three newspaper journalists who have sought to report details on a multi-billion-dollar arms scandal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The South African Police Service interrogated Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of the weekly Mail & Guardian, along with Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer, investigative reporters with the same paper, at a police station in Pretoria on Thursday, the paper reported.

The journalists were questioned over their possession of information from a sealed 2004 police deposition of then-private businessman Mac Maharaj in connection with an official probe into corruption allegations surrounding a US$5 billion international arms deal, according to news reports. Maharaj is now a spokesman of President Jacob Zuma. Several top officials were convicted in recent years of receiving payouts from European arms manufacturers in a 1999 government deal for fighter jets and naval patrol boats, according to news reports.

In November, the Mail & Guardian tried to report on the contents of the deposition and sought comment from Maharaj, according to news reports. The official immediately threatened legal action, which prompted the paper to redact the story and censor large portions of it, news reports said. But Maharaj’s lawyers went ahead and lodged the complaint anyway, the reports said.

“South African police should not allow themselves to be used in this campaign to intimidate Mail & Guardian journalists and censor the newspaper’s coverage of an important aspect of the arms scandal,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita from New York. “We call on police to halt their criminal investigation immediately.”

Maharaj accused the journalists of violating a 1998 law that bars unauthorized disclosure of a suspect’s testimony in an investigation, according to news reports. Maharaj also asserted that the paper could not have lawfully possessed the transcript of the deposition, news reports said.

A few days after Mail & Guardian censored its report, private weekly City Press published content obtained from another secret deposition of Maharaj in 2003, according to news reports. Maharaj did not file a complaint against City Press, according to local journalists. Maharaj has consistently denied any wrongdoing in response to several stories in South African newspapers, including Noseweek, City Press, and Sunday Times, that link him in high-profile corruption scandals, according to CPJ research.

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