- The Johannesburg High Court has banned the publication of an article revealing a corruption scandal involving the ruling ANC party. South Africa's 'Oilgate' scandal involves millions of rand channelled from the state via an oil company to the ANC to fund the party's 2004 election campaign.
The High Court Thursday night ordered South Africa's leading independent newspaper, the 'Mail and Guardian', to recall its entire print run of 45,000 to prevent the distribution of an article giving further details of the 'Oilgate' scandal. Today, the newspaper hit the streets with the word "Gagged" in large red letters across its front page. The 'Oilgate' revelations on page two had been blacked out.
The 'Mail and Guardian' last week had printed an article - the first in a series - alleging that the South African oil company Imvume Management was used to channel rand 15 million (euros 1.8 million) from the state to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to assist it in running its election campaign in April 2004.
Yesterday, Imvume Management approached the Johannesburg High Court to prevent the publication of the follow-up article from going ahead, and the application was granted last night. One of the reasons given by the Court for the gagging order was that the newspaper refused to reveal its confidential sources of information for the story, which Imvume claimed were obtained illegally. According to arguments made by the 'Mail and Guardian', the sources were verified through a second source.
The gagging of South Africa's leading newspaper - when revealing a corruption affair involving the ruling party - has caused massive protests by the opposition and national media organisations. The public had a "right to know how their taxes are being spent," complained spokeswoman Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa's main opposition party.
Imvume had not denied 'Mail and Guardian' claims that PetroSA - a parastatal supported by taxpayers' money - had paid twice for an oil consignment of because rand 11 million paid up-front had been diverted by Imvume to fund the ANC's 2004 election campaign, Ms Zille pointed out. "The only argument Imvume raised against the Mail and Guardian's right to publish was that the information was obtained 'illegally', without defining what illegality was involved," she added.
- The DA does not agree that a company's 'right to privacy' overrides this imperative, the opposition spokeswomen said. "If the allegations are false, Imvume should take appropriate action against the 'Mail and Guardian' to protect its good name. If they are true, the public's right to know is, in our view, overriding," she added.
The newspaper's founding editor, Anton Harber, today noted that the court's order to censor the 'Mail and Guardian' "takes us back 15 years and is a very serious setback for media freedom," to the apartheid era. Mr Harber added that the corruption revelations seemed "so important that I find it extraordinary that the courts should stop it coming out."
An editorial in the newspaper further underlined the seriousness of the court order. "This is the first time since the apartheid state's banning of the M&G under emergency regulations in the late 1980s that the paper has been muzzled. It is the first time since the mid-Eighties that the newspaper once again features blacked-out text to illustrate that it has effectively been banned," the newspaper noted.
Also the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) today was outraged about the court order. "Freedom of expression must constantly be fought for," the institute noted, condemning the judgement point by point.
FXI had no sympathy for the judge's and Imvume's allegation that the information the 'Mail and Guardian' had used had been obtained illegally. "It is a generally accepted principle of media freedom that if organisations that are being investigated by a newspaper spring information leaks, they should take responsibility for their own lax security and not attempt to plug the leak by gagging the newspaper that obtained the information," the Institute said in a statement.
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