Monday, January 30

Crime story triggers free speech debate in South Africa

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JOHANNESBURG: Two self-confessed criminals appear on screen, one with a stocking over his head, threatening to rob tourists and stage shootouts with police during South Africa’s football World Cup.

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT: Argentina coach Diego Maradona juggles the ball in front of apprentices of football school at the Selekelela Secondary school in Soweto. The football legend is in South Africa to inspect the facilities his team will use during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in June. — AFP photo

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT: Argentina coach Diego Maradona juggles the ball in front of apprentices of football school at the Selekelela Secondary school in Soweto. The football legend is in South Africa to inspect the facilities his team will use during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in June. — AFP photo

The TV news report broadcast last week was meant to raise questions about security preparations for the tournament, the first on African soil, which is now less than five months away.

But instead it has become linked to a suicide and triggered a public debate about media freedom, as the government invoked an apartheid-era law to try to force the journalists to identify the two men.

In the segment broadcast last Friday on South Africa’s private eNews satellite channel, a self-confessed car-jacker says he plans to target the 450,000 World Cup tourists expected in June.

“Most of the time these people are carrying valuable things and imports. For us, it’s a very big opportunity to have what we don’t have,” says the man, his face obscured on camera, but shown loading a gun.

“But not to hurt them, so even next time they will come back and we’ll rob them again,” he says, identifying himself only as a 36-year-old father of three.

Another, who says he served 10 years for bank robbery, says he’s ready to shoot police who try to stop him. “Not for a second will I hesitate, not for a second,” he says.

South Africa has tried to stamp out concerns about crime during the World Cup, despite the nation’s staggering incidence of violence, with an average 50 people killed every day.

Police minister Nathi Mthethwa quickly ordered an investigation to find the two men, accusing them of the crime of intimidation, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

“These scoundrels make it clear that they intend to rob and shoot, and if needs be, murder any law enforcement official or member of the public who tries to stop them,” he said in a statement. “This conduct constitutes a threat to the safety and security of members of the public and visiting tourists,” he said.

As part of the probe, authorities have invoked an apartheid-era media law to try to force eNews editor Ben Said and reporter Mpho Lakaje to identify the two men.

The network says their lawyers are considering how to reply to the subpoenas. The two could go to jail if they insist on protecting the sources.

But eNews says its only link to the self-confessed criminals was a man they said was a go-between with the criminals who was discovered dead on Tuesday in Soweto, with a suicide note saying Lakaje had “put me in mess”.

“While the circumstances of the apparent suicide are not yet known, eNews has not revealed his identity to anyone,” the station said.

The station hasn’t announced whether Said and Lakaje will appear in court on Monday as ordered in the subpoena, but media groups have denounced government’s decision to invoke the law known as Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act.

Under white-minority rule, the measure was once used to force journalists to reveal information about nationalists living underground.

With South Africa’s new constitution, media freedoms are guaranteed, but the courts have never been forced to rule if the law conforms to the bill of rights.

In addition to the eNews case, the law was also invoked against two newspapers last year, which the South African National Editors’ Forum says points to an alarming trend.

“We see the tendency for the police to easily issue subpoenas and invoke Section 205. They seem to do it too easily, which worries us,” said Thabo Leshilo, the group’s chairman for media freedom.

But the ruling African National Congress has backed the probe into eNews, part of the e.tv group.

“If e.tv does not safeguard the interests of the innocent people from all over the world… they cannot be different from these criminals themselves,” ANC national spokesman Jackson Mthembu said. — AFP