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Press freedom gets red card as World Cup approaches

Police patrol the World Cup grounds in South Africa. (AFP)As South Africa prepares to host the 2010 World Cup and “soccer fever” reaches its height, press freedom may be left on the benches. Police have recently subpoenaed two journalists working for private station e.tv to reveal their sources in a story about a scheme to commit violent crimes during the big event.
 
On January 16, e.tv interviewed two masked, self-confessed criminals who claimed they planned to steal from tourists in town for the Cup. The police and ruling African National Congress party were not pleased with the bad publicity. Now the police want to use apartheid-era legislation to force News Editor Ben Saidi and reporter Mpho Lakaje to reveal the identity and contact details of the two sources.

The reporters were also asked to give prosecutors the unedited footage, the local press reported. According to the press freedom group Media Institute of Southern Africa, South Africa’s ruling party called on e.tv to do what it said was the "honorable" thing and withdraw future broadcasts featuring the interviews.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa accused the broadcaster of “protecting criminals at the expense of South Africans. This is beyond journalism,” he was quoted as saying in local news reports. Meanwhile, National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele, referred to e.tv as “crime kissers.”

A mediation between e.tv’s lawyers and the police is set to take place on Thursday.

The story, according to e.tv, was meant to raise pertinent questions about the country’s security preparedness for the world’s biggest sports tournament ever to take place in Africa.

The issue has raised considerable debate within the public. In Johannesburg, Media analyst and Wits University Professor Tawana Kupe dismissed the journalists’ use of criminal sources. “We have two men, armed, probably with unlicensed firearms, threatening the biggest event in the world,” Kupe was quoted as saying in the local daily Sowetan newspaper. “Surely their qualification as sources falls away.”

Raymond Louw, editor and publisher of the weekly Southern African Report, disagreed. “Everybody knows that there is serious crime in South Africa,” Louw told CPJ. “If you are going to do this kind of a story as a journalist, you will have to do it with criminals. They then become your sources, and that’s the work of investigative journalists.”

The channel’s communications manager, Vasili Vass, has vowed that the station will explore every potential legal avenue including, potentially, South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

(Reporting from Johannesburg)


EDITOR'S NOTE: Bheki Cele's title has been changed.

January 26, 2010 5:08 PM ET |

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