IFJ Says South African Government "Trampling on Journalists’ Right to Protect Sources"

The International Federation of Journalists today said the South African government’s demand that a Johannesburg newspaper web site turn over information it received about government corruption is a clear attempt to weaken press freedom.

South African police are investigating the sources of a Mail and Guardian web site story that alleges oil company Imvume Management diverted public funds to the African National Congress. A subpoena has been issued instructing the newsroom to hand over its documents related to the story.

“This subpoena is a clear attack on freedom of the press in South Africa and the protection of whistleblowers,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “Rather than investigate the serious charges leveled in the article, the government is blaming the messenger and trying to punish the Mail and Guardian for publishing this story. It is trampling on journalists’ right to protect their sources.”

The Mail & Guardian Online published portions of a bank statement showing that 11 million rand went to the ANC but did not highlight payments in the article that were subject to a gag order. Previously, Imvume had obtained a court order prohibiting the M&G from revealing that payments had also gone government officials or their relatives.

The government served MWeb a Section 205 subpoena, which demands MWeb, the co-owner and host of M&G Online, hand over records relating to the online publication of the excerpt of an Imvume bank statement. The subpoena says the charge being investigated is contempt of court — apparently because the statement excerpt remained on the website after the gag order.

While the Mail & Guardian is being investigated, criminal complaints against Imvume and the alleged corruption, dubbed Oilgate, have stalled.

The IFJ says the South African government should focus on investigating the allegations of corruption and not on punishing media outlets for publicizing the accusations.

“This investigation is yet another attempt to intimidate reporters and media outlets and prevent them from running unflattering stories about their governments,” said White. “Around the world, journalists are being pressured to reveal their sources in what are clear attempts to prevent future whistleblowers from contacting the press.”

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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries