'Scoop' Puts Sound Judgment at Risk

Cape Times (South Africa), July 14, 2011 | Go to article overview
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'Scoop' Puts Sound Judgment at Risk


The process of exacting accountability from those in positions of power can become complex when unattainable moral high ground is used as the yardstick.

The oft-mouthed warning against being "popier than the pope" is appropriate, certainly one that is applicable to picking over the carcasses left in the wake of the headlines chosen by Independent Newspapers in their coverage of the "imminent arrest" of the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela - no arrest warrant has ever been issued, followed by "Here's the proof, Minister" when official denials of any investigation, let alone arrest, were swiftly issued in the wake of the decision to publish stories based on what purports to be an internal police "information note" portentously dated April Fools' Day.

This note, among others, was apparently leaked to Jovial Rantao, a senior journalist and deputy editor of The Star, who appears to have made the call to publish, and has since stoutly defended the decision by pointing out that:

"1. The article was based on several documents and extensive interaction with high level sources over a period of time.

"2. We took a decision to remove all the names, a signature and contact numbers as a precaution to make sure our sources were not compromised.

"3. It it our duty to inform the public of the greater internal dynamics regarding a matter of public interest; and

"4. We corroborated all our information and gave the PP the right to reply. We did not in any of our reports treat her like a criminal suspect but a subject of a bigger plot."

To the extent that knowledge is power and the press is a purveyor of information from which knowledge is derived, the press has great power.

In South Africa it also has guaranteed rights to access to information and to freedom of expression, making the work of newspapermen considerably less fraught than it was in the past, when severe restrictions on what could and could not be published existed.

The press is also under threat.

The 2007 Polokwane policy conference of the ANC adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a "Media Appeals Tribunal" to deal, inter alia, with assaults on the privacy and dignity of miffed politicians whose wrongdoing is very properly aired in the press on a regular and ongoing basis.

This tribunal, if it ever sees the light of day, will, in effect, be a censorship board; the current right of the press to self-regulate will be diluted and the mere existence of the proposed tribunal will be a terrible and unnecessary dampener on the free flow of information to the public via the press, the lifeblood of any truly democratic order.

Under the tribunal the power of the press will be curtailed to the everlasting detriment of the interests of civil society, the future of the country and the free flow of the publishable information that is the source of much power.

In these circumstances, it is incumbent upon the press to exercise responsible judgment when deciding whether or not to publish on the basis of uncorroborated leaks of "confidential" notes that may well be mischievously concocted so as to use the press as the unwitting tool of those with nefarious agendas. The rights involved in freedom of expression and access to information are not unqualified, nor may they be exercised in a way that unwarrantedly infringes the rights of others.

A responsible decision has to be made when an anonymous, albeit corroborated, leak of a purported police note is made at a time when the target of the leak is in the process of pouncing upon the national Commissioner of Police, following findings of irregularities in the conclusion of leases for police headquarters in Pretoria and Durban.

A judgment call of this nature can be very difficult to make. Who wanted to believe that Hansie Cronje, the heroic national cricket captain, was a crook until he actually admitted it?

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