A controversial news report by a South African web has sparked a showdown with the police, reviving a public debate over press rights in a country known for its media freedom.
The report, aired on commercial broadcaster e.tv’s 24-hour eNews channel, featured two confessed criminals threatening to attack tourists during this summer’s monthlong World Cup soccer tournament, due to kick off in Johannesburg on June 11.
One of the criminals, who appeared with a stocking over his head, told reporters that tourists would make easy targets.
“Most of the time these people are carrying valuable things and imports. For us, it’s a very big opportunity to have what we don’t have,” said the man, according to reports in local newspapers.
The other criminal, who confessed to serving 10 years for bank robbery, said he was ready to shoot any police who tried to stop him.
Authorities quickly stepped in, demanding the station identify the two criminals by invoking an apartheid-era media law. The move outraged media rights groups and e.tv resisted the demand, refusing to give prosecutors unedited footage from the show’s filming or identify its sources.
The web claimed the controversial report was meant to raise important questions about the country’s security preparedness ahead of the World Cup.
South Africa’s alarming crime rate has been a thorn in the side of the government, which is struggling to allay the fears of foreign tourists, thousands of whom plan to visit for the tournament.
The two reporters subpoenaed by the police were scheduled to appear in court last week, but the case was postponed indefinitely pending mediation between the police and lawyers for e.tv.
Media groups have lashed out at the government’s decision to invoke the law, known as Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act, which was used during the apartheid struggle to force journalists to reveal information about nationalists living underground.
“We see the tendency for the police to easily issue subpoenas and invoke Section 205, which worries us,” said Thabo Leshilo, chairman for media freedom at the South African National Editors’ Forum.
The story has prompted a heated public debate, with journalists rising in defense of eNews.
“Everybody knows that there is serious crime in South Africa,” says Raymond Louw, editor and publisher of the weekly Southern African Report. “If you are going to do this kind of a story as a journalist, you will have to do it with criminals. They then become your sources, and that’s the work of investigative journalists.”
The ruling African National Congress, meanwhile, has backed the probe into eNews.
“If e.tv does not safeguard the interests of the innocent people from all over the world…they cannot be different from these criminals themselves,” says ANC national spokesman Jackson Mthembu.