Raymond Louw has for decades been the most active, dedicated and consistent media freedom activist in the country. He is the first to volunteer for any campaign, sits on every possible committee, goes to every meeting and does much of the work, writes Anton Harber.
From his days as a respected editor of the Rand Daily Mail, he has never hesitated to stand up and be counted for media freedom. That is why he was the voice of the SA National Editors' Forum at the Hefer commission last week, defending the right of disgraced journalist Ranjeni Munusamy not to have to testify.


He believes the rights of journalists are absolute, and brooks no compromise on that. Louw argued that journalists should never be made to testify, that to do so compromised their independence, their professionalism, endangered their lives and undermined our democracy. The role of the media, he said, might be "rendered null and void".

In this overstatement, he had the support of bodies like the Freedom of Expression Institute and the Media Institute of SA. The clickety-click heard in newsrooms last week was not fingers on keyboards but rapid-fire kneejerking from those who remember how subpoenas were used during apartheid to compromise, harass and intimidate journalists.

But things are different now, and Louw avoided the important distinction between naming sources and giving testimony. On the first issue, there is unanimity among journalists, but there is less clarity on giving evidence in general. Journalists are also citizens with standard obligations to assist where they can in legal proceedings. These have to be balanced against the demands of their profession and threats to media freedom, but it is dangerous for journalists to claim total immunity from normal social and legal obligations unless they have very good reason for it.

There are cases where it has been argued strongly that journalists should not testify. Photographer Bennie Gool refused to answer questions about his photographs of the fiery death of gangster Rashied Staggie, saying his life and those of other photographers would be in danger if they were seen to be collecting evidence for the prosecution. Testifying may deprive us of such valuable photographs in future.

That was a substantial reason.

Journalist Andries Cornelissen refused to testify about his report that Peter Mokaba led a chant of "Kill the Boer, kill the farmer" at a mass rally. If we wanted to have such rallies reported in future and we wanted journalists to feel safe to do so they needed to distinguish between their roles as reporters and the roles of the police.

This sounded reasonable.

But these reasons do not apply here. Giving evidence would not endanger journalists' lives; it is hard to see how it would inhibit their future reporting; they can agree to answer every question except those that compromise their professional obligations.

Journalists who refuse to testify at all put themselves above the law. That cannot be correct. It leads to the suspicion that they are scared of public cross-examination because they have other things to hide. Journalists have to have damn good reason to avoid the kind of scrutiny we demand of other public figures.

Munusamy said her safety was threatened by a source who did not want to be named. I cannot see why one would protect a source who threatened or misled one. Sources who act this way should be named and shamed.

Even stranger was City Press acting editor Wally Mbhele's announcement that he had forbidden his journalist to testify. The decision on naming sources is normally left to the conscience of the individual journalist who is, after all, the one who will have to carry the consequences. It is noble to be willing to suffer prison for your principles; it's not quite the same to go down for your principal's principles.

Both sides in this showdown between Hefer and journalists need to take a deep breath. A confrontation between bench and media will harm both sides and damage the country's new-found reputation for media tolerance. There is mutual interest in finding a middle path.

It is worth remembering that this inquiry is a sideshow within a sideshow. The fight with journalists detracts from the main purpose of the commission, to investigate spying charges against Bulelani Ngcuka, itself a sideshow from the real issue: allegations of arms-purchase corruption.

If journalists want to serve their profession well they will try to step out of the spotlight as quickly as possible and point it back to the real story.

*Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies. This column first appeared in Business Day, October 24, 2003