Protection of Sources “Paramount” Says IFJ As South African Journalists Face Court Challenge

The International Federation of Journalists today called upon the South African authorities to withdraw subpoenas issued to journalists, which could force them to reveal their sources of information. “Protection of sources is of paramount importance to professional and ethical journalism,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “South Africa should avoid any judicial procedures that threaten this key principle.”

On October 8, former Sunday Times journalist Ranjeni Munusamy received a subpoena from the Hefer Commission concerning a probe into allegations that Bulelani Ngcuka, the National Director of Prosecutions, had been investigated by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) into whether he was an apartheid spy for the National Intelligence Agency in the 1980s. Vusi Mona and Elias Maluleke reporters for the City Press and Mathatha Tsedu working for the Sunday Times have also been approached either through formal subpoenas or requests.

Munusamy was approached by a confidential source who provided her with documents and information regarding the investigation into Ngcuka. On 7 September, Munusamy co-authored an article on this topic for the City Press after her former employers at the Sunday Times refused to publish the story. It is believed that if Munusamy appears before the Commission she will be asked to reveal the confidential source for her article.

As a result, the journalist will be forced to testify before the presidential commission in the Bloemfontein Supreme Court or face potential legal penalties for either resisting the Chairperson of a commission under the Commissions Act of 1947 or for ignoring a binding subpoena.

“Journalists must be able to protect those who come forward with information. If not, sources will dry up and democracy will suffer,” said White.

On 7 October, the secretary to the Commission John Bacon said that witnesses summoned before the body cannot refuse to testify or refuse to answer any question. The IFJ says the Commission’s decision contravenes judgments reached by international bodies on the subject of journalists being forced to testify.

Last December an appeals panel from the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague overturned a decision that former Washington Post journalist Jonathan Randal could be compelled to appear before the Tribunal. In reaching its decision, the panel agreed with Randal and his lawyers that the personal safety and independence of journalists could be jeopardized if he was forced to testify.

The IFJ is backing media organizations and journalists’ groups, including its affiliate the Media Workers Association of South Africa, which are planning to make a submission to the Commission Judge tomorrow. The IFJ, which has recently launched a global campaign to highlight the need to protect sources, says the Commission should rescind the subpoena against Munusamy and the other journalists immediately.

“Under no conditions should journalists be expected to testify before any court or commission,” said White. “Journalists’ rights are human rights as protected by the South African Constitution and journalists should not be used as collectors of information for the country's law enforcement agencies.”

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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries