The subpoena issued to journalists after their interview with self-confessed criminals threatens media freedom, writes Bewyn Petersen, the vice-chairperson of the SA Media Council in a letter to Business Day.

Bewyn Petersen writes in a letter to Business Day:

E.TV's journalists have been subpoenaed by the South African Police Service after airing a programme showing two men who openly admitted to planning to rob visitors during the Soccer World Cup later this year. We've since learnt that a man who committed suicide on Monday was the journalist's source, and had introduced him to the alleged criminals who appeared on the programme.

When the story broke I found myself hoping that would resist the pressure from the police (and for that matter anyone else), who demanded that the journalists give up any information relating to their sources. A journalist's ability to report from sometimes dangerous and unpredictable situations is paramount in terms of them doing their jobs. The fact that they often do is due to the universal perception that they are doing their jobs without taking sides in the conflict or disagreement. Should this perception change, we, the public, will lose our access to the news, and with it our right to know.

Therefore, thanks to the universal acceptance of journalists' impartiality, we have access to the news and can form our own opinions about the reported events. Importantly, it also allows us to be informed about things that could affect us in some way – such as a crime spree being planned.

A very important function that the media fulfil is that when they are allowed to report on things like oppression, such as during apartheid and in countries like Myanmar, the public consciousness is awakened to these atrocities and collectively we condemn such actions. While it may take time, as it did in SA, eventually the pressure brought to bear by public opinion is such that the aggressors are overwhelmed, causing the situation to change. Many journalists, such as Walter Sisulu and Ruth First, among others, were imprisoned for their refusal to sacrifice their right to report events in this country during the dark times. Some of those journalists – Helen Zille springs to mind – serve in government today. Surely they must be aware of how wrong the idea of this subpoena is? Is this the way forward for us in SA? I refuse to believe it is and I do hope that sanity prevails.

Yet the police, using laws that existed under apartheid, are seeking to circumvent the journalists' right to report without fear and the public's right to know by issuing this subpoena.

I am dismayed that I have not seen anyone in government, including the opposition, oppose this action. If the police are successful, it may prevent journalists from having access to similar situations in the future and may even endanger their lives. Should this happen, we will lose one of our most fundamental rights – the right to know – and with it our right to decide for ourselves.

Media freedom is one of the most important rights we have sacrificed so much for in SA. We should cherish it, not go all out to destroy it for an easy win against ruthless criminals, who will surely carry on doing crime.

The more we know now, the better our society will be tomorrow.

* This letter first appeared in Business Day on 21 January 2010. Petersen is Vice-chairman: the South African Press Council