Lusaka, August 10, 2023—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed a Gauteng High Court ruling on Tuesday to dismiss an urgent application by two businessmen connected to South African Deputy President Paul Mashatile to prevent the Media24 publishing group from referring to them as part of the “Alex Mafia.” In its ruling, the court described the application as an “abuse of process” aimed to “improperly punish” the press group and its journalists.
“Judge Ingrid Opperman’s ruling is another victory for press freedom in South Africa against politically connected individuals who are increasingly abusing court processes to try to prevent journalists from reporting in the public interest,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in Durban on Thursday. “This is the third South African court ruling in recent months to favor the press, and we welcome the judge’s statement that those with grievances against the media should seek redress through the Press Council rather than complain to the courts.”
The two businessmen, Bridgman Sithole and Michael Maile, last month filed an urgent request to the court to bar Media24 from calling them members of the “Alex Mafia.” The term refers to a group of former anti-apartheid activists from Alexandra township in Johannesburg, including Mashatile, who rose to positions of influence in the provincial government and later became powerful and wealthy businessmen by winning lucrative government contracts.
In her ruling, Opperman said she was “driven to conclude that this application is an abusive attempt by two politically connected businessmen to gag a targeted newsroom from using a nickname — ‘Alex Mafia’ — by which [Sithole and Maile] are popularly known and called by the public, politicians, political commentators, other newsrooms, and themselves — and have been for at least 16 years.”
The judge also said it was unclear why Sithole and Maile did not pursue the “potentially speedier remedies” of filing a complaint with the Press Council, an independent co-regulatory mechanism that settles disputes over editorial content between members of the public and media outlets. The judge ordered the pair to pay punitive costs in the form of all the legal fees incurred by Media24 in the case.
Adriaan Basson, editor-in-chief of News24, a division of Media24, said in response that the outlet would “continue digging into the businesses” of the “Alex Mafia” and the rest of Mashatile’s alleged funders “so that the country knows the people who are funding the lavish lifestyle of the second-in-charge.” News24’s investigative series details Mashatile’s alleged links to businessmen, including Sithole and Maile.
Sithole and Maile referred CPJ to their lawyer, who did not respond to an email.
Opperman’s judgment is the third South African court ruling in as many months to decide that litigation against the media was an abuse of process