As former president Jacob Zuma took aim at News24 journalist Karyn Maughan and prosecutor Billy Downer in a private prosecution at the Pietermaritzburg High Court this week, hundreds of Maughan’s colleagues, supporters and journalistic organisations from around South Africa rallied around her with a unified message: “Journalism is not a crime.”

In early September, Zuma accused the pair of allegedly breaching the National Prosecuting Authority Act for the alleged leak of his private medical records, and as such, launched criminal proceedings against them.

Three South African media organisations, the South African National Editors’ Forum, the Campaign for Free Expression and Media Monitoring Africa have since applied for amicus curiae (friend of the court) status, seeking to assist the court in determining whether this constitutes a Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) case – one that serves as a delay tactic, chills free speech and challenges those who speak out against government.

Adjunct professor at the Wits Centre for Journalism and executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression, Anton Harber, appeared on eNCA on 10 October following the postponement of the case to discuss why the public, and especially media professionals, must remain vigilant on how it plays out.

“From the facts as I understand them, there is very little merit [in this case], and that’s because what [Maughan] did in getting documents as they were tabled in court from the prosecutor is normal journalistic practice. There’s nothing untoward about it,” explained Harber.

“The accusation that she released his medical records is not true. It was a letter from [Zuma’s] doctor, which was in fact released by [Zuma’s] team, and he has made no attempt to make them secret or private in any way. I think there’s a lot to dispute in this case, and I think it will be an important case for that reason.”

Harber said that the verdict of the case could affect the rights of journalists in South Africa and how they approach the reporting of stories such as this.

“Our concern is that it has a chilling effect, in that journalists start to fear that if they cover these cases in the way they should – thoroughly and properly – that they themselves might be subject to harassment and prosecution of this sort.”

While Harber is concerned that this type of targeted harassment is part of a worldwide trend that is making the work of journalists more difficult in many countries, he feels confident that the Constitutional Court will stand firmly on the side of defending media freedom as outlined in South Africa’s Constitution.

The Pietermaritzburg High Court has postponed the case to 2 February 2023.