So far the tenure of Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, his deputy Fikile Mbalula and Police Commissioner Bheki Cele, has been characterised by rhetorical bombast and ham-fisted populism.

With deadly results.

Their “shoot-to-kill” comments have led to the murder of at least two innocents. This week they dusted off apartheid-era legislation to subpoena’s news editor Ben Said and reporter Mpho Lakaje following the station’s airing last week of interviews with alleged criminals who detailed their plans to target tourists visiting South Africa for the football World Cup.

The police bosses’ scattergun approach to crime fighting has now hit a sacred target: our constitutional democracy. The freedom of expression and media freedoms are bleeding from the trio’s use of the draconian section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act in an attempt to get to reveal the identity and whereabouts of its interviewees.

This is the very same legislation used by the apartheid state to coerce journalists to reveal their sources within the anti-apartheid movement. And which all three, given their history in the struggle, would have been threatened by and fought to have struck down.

Let it be clear that we hold no brief for and do not believe in absolute loyalty to colleagues who may have stepped out of line.

But even if was unwise or slack in its approach, it is the ill-conceived nature of the police trio’s application and their wilful disregard for the spirit of constitutionalism that is most problematic.

Guidelines drawn up in 1996 for the use of Section 205 are clear: before a director of public prosecutions may be approached for such an order, the applicant (the police in this case) needs to be satisfied on various grounds.

These include that there be “reasonable ground to believe” that the subjects of the subpoena (the journalists) have information at their disposal concerning “the alleged commission of an offence” and that the information was integral to the “successful conclusion of the investigation into the alleged offence and any criminal prosecution” that may follow.

It is unclear to us what crimes’s interviewees have committed and how revealing their identities would help the police to “conclude” an investigation, as required by the guidelines.

Rather than applying scare tactics against the media, Cele and his troops should roll up their sleeves, prevent and police – and stop treating the media as their personal intelligence service.

The cliché “don’t shoot the messenger” has never been so apt. Their reaction to the interview was an obvious exercise in grandstanding; a shameful bully-boy threat to the way the media operates and to the freedom of expression.

Source: MAIL & GUARDIAN ONLINE, 20100122

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