The weekend papers were full of details about "Travelgate" – the scandal in which South African MPs used travel vouchers for all sorts of things they weren't intended for.

Newspapers said somewhere between 135 and 179 MPs are being investigated, while travel agency staff were arrested and began appearing in court. Several prominent politicians were identified by name as being under investigation: the Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Education Minister Naledi Pandor, premiers Beatrice Marshoff and Thabang Makwetla and many others.

In anyone's book, it's a major scandal.

Mbete was quoted as saying she was "concerned" about the naming of MPs who might later be cleared.  She was right, of course: it's more than likely that many of them will eventually be found to have made an honest mistake, or to have done nothing wrong at all.  For the moment, a dark cloud of suspicion hangs over them, and that can't be pleasant.

It is only the latest of many recent examples of people being named long before they have been formally charged. 

The identities of Judge Siraj Desai and the woman who accused him of rape in Mumbai, Salome Isaacs, were public almost within minutes of the story surfacing.  More recently, soccer referees arrested for match-fixing have been named with gay abandon.

Occasionally, a victim hits back.  In 2002, the Cape Times had to pay a businessman R100 000 plus interest in damages after linking him to a bomb attack on the Waterfront.  Walleed Suliman had been arrested at Cape Town airport for passport irregularities, and the paper published his picture, suggesting the link.

These situations are sometimes described as "trial by media" – one of those phrases that seem weighty at first glance, but which in fact mean very little. 

The expression seems to suggest that nothing should be reported until the law has run its course.  That's obvious nonsense.  If society were to wait for the courts in every case of public misbehaviour, there would be even more rogues running around than there already are. The media have a critical role to play in exposing wrongdoing.

The legal process itself is a bruising one.  Just the fact of being arrested or charged can damage an innocent reputation.  Many people believe "there's no smoke without fire" – another of those sayings that have power far beyond their validity.

The law offers some sort of protection, insisting that people arrested cannot be named until they appear in court.  But the rules are neither consistent nor very helpful.

The MPs, for instance, can be freely named while the investigation is in progress.  (For the moment, let us disregard the possibility of a defamation suit.) If some are arrested, the full might of the law protects their identities – for exactly 48 hours, which is the time the police are allowed to hold them before they must appear in court.  

Once the legal process begins, the full glare of publicity can be turned on them once again.  The 48 hours of protection seem like a very small fig leaf that doesn't hide very much.

The law, as someone said, is an ass.

There are other oddities and uncertainties. Does the trial begin with the first appearance, or only once the person has been asked to plead? Then there is additional protection for the complainants in cases of rape, sexual abuse or blackmail – but not for the accused.  

Faced with this legal minefield, many newsrooms declare a fairly simple principle: an accused can only be named once he or she has pleaded to the charges.  Except of course that the rule goes out of the window at the slightest opportunity.

It's clearly impossible and undesirable to return to an earlier state of purity and innocence.  There are circumstances when public interest weighs more heavily than an individual's reputation, particularly when that individual is a public figure.

Sometimes, the name is the story.  Who could imagine reporting allegations against Deputy President Jacob Zuma as involving "a senior government official"?

In a 1998 ruling, the press ombud said: "Suppression of high-level investigations into allegations against a senior politician cannot be justified as being in the public interest. It would be wrong to withhold such information from the public of a country whose constitution provides for 'a democratic and open society'."

Also, naming people being investigated can remove suspicion from others. Identifying those MPs who may be linked to "Travelgate" clears the rest.

However, we should always be aware how often investigations come to nothing, and how easily innocent reputations can be hurt. Investigations and allegations should always be reported in such a way that it is clear they have not been tested. 

And if people are cleared in the end, this should be reported.  In high-profile cases, this is usually done.

Some years ago, South Africa was agog at reports of the gang rape of "Baby Tshepang" in Upington.  Six men were arrested, and The Star devoted its front page to their photographs.  It was almost medieval: look at these monsters, the paper seemed to be saying.

Later, they were proved to be entirely innocent.  It was a striking example of a paper getting carried away by the thrill of the chase.

Undoubtedly, the current practice of declaring a principle and then breaking it at every turn is very damaging to journalism. It would be better to define the circumstances when the old rule does not apply.  This would probably involve an argument about public interest, but may also include other factors. 

The SA National Editors' Forum recently did a fine job in developing guidelines about the handling of off-the-record briefings.  The body produced a considered and comprehensive document.  It should do the same in this area.

* Franz Kruger teaches journalism at Wits University, and has written the ethics handbook Black, white and grey.  He is contactable at This column was published on 3 August 2004.