The Sunday Times journalists who reported on suspended national police commissioner Bheki Cele signing off on a “dodgy” R26 million World Cup tender would have faced jail under the Protection of State Information Bill, MPs heard on Tuesday.
“If the bill had been enforced and documents had been classified under the bill, the journalists would be facing jail sentences,” media lawyer Dario Milo said on behalf of the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef).
Milo told MPs in the ad hoc committee on the bill that, were the documents that informed the article classified, an offence would have been triggered if the act had been signed into law by President Jacob Zuma.
The journalists would have been prosecuted under clause 43, a disclosure offence, and clause 44, which dealt with possession of classified documents.
“What the journalists would have to do, guided by the bill, is say to their source that we can’t publish this information. We have to take documents to the nearest police station and return [them], and we are going to have to ask for the documents under Clause 19, and wait for that to unfold.
“After the court battles, we may be able to publish the information,” he said.
The newspaper reported that Cele allegedly signed a R26m contract for the accommodation of 1280 police officers during the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
The contract was awarded to Thoshan Panday, the owner of Goldcoast Trading, and was reportedly not put out to tender.
Officials had apparently claimed that there was no time to advertise the bid.
Treasury rules state that all government contracts worth more than R500,000 should be put out to tender.
However, if the documents had been classified to hide corruption, that too would be an offence under the bill, said Milo. That was right, he said.
It was “a pretty serious consequence” to have the offences without a public interest counterbalance defence, Milo said.
He said Sanef was proposing a more flexible public interest override when classified documents were requested.
A public interest defence would signal a firm commitment to openness and transparency in democracy.
“We would say in principle that the public interest defence has to be there,” he said.
Sanef also recommended that people who repeated information should not be punished.
“We have a number of South African cables published on “Wikileaks” which the media in South Africa published.
“If the bill was enforced, they couldn’t do that without risking breaching some of the criminal prohibitions.”
Sanef chairman Nic Dawes told the committee that the insertion of a public interest clause in the bill would not give carte blanche to irresponsible journalism.
“We are here because we think the National Council of Provinces can take the final steps in making sure the bill is an instrument that keeps our democracy safe.”
SA Human Rights Commission deputy chairwoman Pregs Govender told the committee that information was central to building a human rights culture.