There are three reasons why there's been so much reaction to the possible arrest of Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and a senior colleague, writes Anton Harber in the Sunday Times. One, it conjures up an image that does not fit the model democracy South Africa would like to be. Two, it reinforces a growing belief that the Presidency is using state machinery against critics. Three, it does not seem to take into account that editors are guided by public interest.

Anton Harber writes in the Sunday Times:

Journalists are not above the law, right? So why the inordinate fuss over the legal action against the Sunday Times editor and one of his journalists ? The reason is three-fold.

The first is that images of editors being dragged off to prison are not good for a country which stands as a model for emerging, post-conflict democracies. They undermine our image as a free society.

Secondly, the events reinforce a growing belief that the Presidency uses the state machinery to go after its critics. It is an allegation others, such as Jacob Zuma and Mac Maharaj, have made. When one hears that a senior detective has received orders directly from Pretoria to drop all other cases and go after an editor, and that journalists’ families are being harassed and their cellphones snooped on, this gives credence to a very serious allegation.

Thirdly, the nature of journalism — and the reason it is the only profession which gets special constitutional protection — is that editors are expected to act in the public interest. They do not always do so, heaven knows, and can expect little protection when this is the case. But when they do, they hope that this will be taken into account.

When someone races through red traffic lights to get an emergency patient to hospital, they are not prosecuted. If you break a ban on swimming in Zoo Lake to rescue someone, you would be surprised to be carted off to court. When journalists do something such as exposing malfeasance, corruption or official incompetence, they expect a recognition that doing it in the public interest can justify irregular behaviour.

This does not mean journalists are above the law. When one breaks the law, one expects to be prosecuted and to have to defend one’s actions. I have done so more than once, and have not always succeeded in convincing the courts that what I did was for the public good. In that case, I had to be prepared to take the rap.

In this case, it is hard not to notice that the minister accused of being unfit for office is still in her post under presidential protection, while the Presidency’s venom is focused on her former deputy minister, and journalists who drew attention to very real issues.

This action against the Sunday Times is either one of malice, or it is an attempt to deflect attention away from the minister’s bibulous and quick-fingered notoriety.

It fits a pattern: in the case of police chief Jackie Selebi , he is protected by the Presidency, while his detractors are fired, suspended or otherwise persecuted.

And it comes against a worrying background. Before Parliament is the Film and Publications Bill, which introduces pre-publication censorship for news media. Before the ANC conference in November is a proposal for a media tribunal to investigate alleged abuses by media of their freedom.

There are some ANC leaders speaking out for media freedom, notably Nelson Mandela, Pallo Jordan and Mathews Phosa, but many more are chanting a chorus of abuse for the media. Minister Charles Nqakula used this week’s celebration of journalists who had fought apartheid to bemoan the current state of reporting, citing “errors” at least five years old.

The President leads the way with a regular online diatribe against the media, keeping his most choice adjectives for those who do things like expose bad hospital conditions. Minister Essop Pahad’s routine is to speak out for media freedom and then viciously attack any expression of it which is uncomfortable for government.

What they are doing is preparing the ground for action against the media.

Criticism of journalists is to be welcomed, especially when we make errors, as happens and will always happen, given the nature of the job. But let’s also recognise when journalists contribute to our society, as they always have.

The critics claim that the proposed actions against the media are intended to prevent abuses and promote better media. But you can be certain that such measures will be used first and foremost against those who make the lives of authorities uncomfortable.

That is why journalists are so jumpy.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University. This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 21 October 2007