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Freedom of the Press vs Freedom to Oppress – Protecting the People’s Right To Know

Freedom of the Press vs Freedom to Oppress
Freedom of the Press vs Freedom to Oppress – Protecting the People’s Right To Know

The debate is not new. It’s the age-old “right to know” vs “right to privacy” argument that everyone from politicians to paparazzi has leveraged from one side or the other pretty much since the advent of the Press.

The reality is, wherever the truth is revealed, there’s always going to be someone who’s not happy about it. This is particularly true in nations where corruption is a significant problem, and the wrongdoers go to extreme lengths to hide their activities.

There’s no denying that Africa, as a whole, has a dismal press freedom record. According to the World Press Freedom Index 2021, 23 out of 48 African countries were assessed as being “bad” or “very bad” in this regard.

Press freedom violations are common, and can range from arbitrary censorship to the arrest – and in some cases even the torture and/or killing – of journalists perceived as threats to national security or the economy.

Thankfully, although South Africa can never pretend to be the poster child for democracy, press freedom is one thing we seem to have got right in our post-Apartheid years.

Freedom of expression is enshrined in our constitution, which states that:


  1. “Every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media and the freedom of artistic creativity and scientific research.
  2. “All media financed by or under the control of the state shall be regulated in a manner which ensures impartiality and the expression of a diversity of opinion.”

However, we all know that it’s one thing to set down these ideals on paper, and another thing entirely to ensure they’re upheld in practice.

This is why it was so gratifying to see the recent Gauteng High Court dismissal – with costs – of the attempted gagging order brought against News24 by two long-time friends of our deputy president, Paul Mashatile.

The case stems from a 2007 article written by journalist Adriaan Basson, listing businessmen Bridgman Sithole and Michael Maile as being part of a “mafia” group in Alexandra township that answered to Mashatile – who, at the time, was the Gauteng finance MEC.

In her ruling, Judge Ingrid Opperman said she was “driven to conclude” that the application by the two men to ban Media24 from referring to them as members of the so-called “Alex Mafia” was “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.”

“In my view, they have abused the court process, by claiming urgency where there is none, by materially altering their case in reply, and by seeking relief which will have no purpose other than to improperly punish and make a chilling example of the first to seventh respondents,” she said.

“Multiple other media houses have published pieces along the same lines, yet no interdict is sought against them – even though the publications remain online.”

Judge Opperman also queried why Sithole and Maile didn’t pursue the “potentially speedier remedies” of filing a complaint with the Press Council, and described the application as an “abuse of process” aimed at “improperly punishing” the press group and its journalists.

In his response, Adriaan Basson, now the editor-in-chief of News24, said they 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.”

Bad Guys – 0, Press Freedom – 1.

Encouragingly, this judgement is the third in as many months to go against a gagging request.

In June, The Pietermaritzburg High Court ordered former President Jacob Zuma to stop his private prosecution of journalist Karyn Maughan. The judges in the case said at the time that, “[The media’s right to freedom of expression] encompasses the right of journalists to report freely on matters of public interest without threats, intimidation and harassment.”

Angela Quintal, the Africa programme coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement afterwards: “We urge the former president not to appeal the judgment. Zuma took an oath to uphold the Constitution when he became president, and he should accept the constitutional right to media freedom that the court has so eloquently upheld.”

A scant month later, the South African High Court overturned a gagging order against investigative outlet Amabhungane relating to its reporting on the Moti Group company.

Founded by Zunaid Moti, the Moti Group initiated legal action against Amabhungane after it published a critical exposé on the company’s Zimbabwean business activities and its connections to members of the political elite.

Initially, a lower court ruled in favour of the Moti Group, but this was later overturned by the Johannesburg High Court, which called the application “an egregious abuse of the process of the court.”

In her reaction to the ruling, the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Director of Advocacy Amy Brouillette said, “The IPI welcomes the High Court’s ruling in this case, and we stand in solidarity with Amabhungane and their mission of watchdog journalism. Lawmakers and the judiciary in South Africa must learn from this case and take steps to prevent the weaponisation of the courts to muzzle the media.”

Of course, South Africa is not the only country fighting to keep its press independent of its government, and it’s fascinating to see how situations play out internationally.

I find it particularly interesting that it seems the case for press freedom is often argued from the other side in those countries where corruption is less pervasive.

For example, two recent cases in the UK where the tabloid press exposed well-known broadcasters for engaging in questionable personal relationships divided public opinion.

Morning TV anchor Phillip Schofield admitted to a relationship with a much younger man employed by the same show after rumours started in the Press that the relationship was inappropriate.

Schofield was accused of grooming the young man, offering him a position on the show in return for sexual favours. Schofield vehemently denied the accusations, claiming the relationship was consensual and had only started after the younger man had already been employed.

But the damage was done, and the fallout was nothing short of catastrophic. Schofield left the show, his reputation and career in tatters.

Another case involved respected BBC anchor Huw Edwards, who fronted BBC News for over 20 years. Many regarded him as the face of the national broadcaster.

Recently, after days of speculation about an “un-named BBC presenter” who was accused of paying a teenager for sexually explicit photos, sending threatening messages to another young person, and sending “creepy” messages to a 17-year-old, Edwards was revealed in the Press as the man in question.

The exposure was cruel, public, and utterly devastating for Edwards and his family. He is now in hospital (suffering, we presume, from some kind of breakdown) and his wife expects him to stay there for the foreseeable future.

The worrying issue, in this case, is that, after a thorough investigation, British Police say they found nothing that warrants further scrutiny. Which then begs the question: If there’s no criminality, why did the press ever expose him?

Once again, a reputation and career have been ruined. But was it really in the public’s interest to know details of what ultimately turned out to be legal, albeit, unwise, activities?

UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is asking these same questions in his bid to become the UK’s next Prime Minister. He has said that should he be successful in his bid for No. 10, he may well consider imposing state regulation of the press to constrain “muck-raking, terror-inflicting tabloids.”

But according to The Telegraph’s reporter, Fraser Nelson, “Attempts to gag free and fearless newspapers would do serious harm to the functioning of democracy.”

He goes on to say, “Society is better off with newspapers that will pick up investigations. Better a rumbustious tabloid press than a system where the rich and powerful can hide misdeeds behind privacy laws – or where politicians can call the press to heel.”

In my opinion, people have a right to privacy, until they break the law. There is a big difference between protecting people’s rights and attempting to cover up a crime.

The press must remain free and legally protected to expose these wrongdoers for the criminals and corrupt individuals they are, no matter how well-connected or respected they may be.

The public has a right to know, and our press should have the right to tell us.