Media freedoms row after e.tv is subpoenaed
Johannesburg – A MEDIA freedoms debacle has erupted in South Africa following the issuing of a subpoena against e.tv’s news wing eNews to identify criminals interviewed on air on their plans to target the 2010 World Cup. Police were this week looking for the e.tv journalist who broke the story following the shock suicide of the man who apparently put the channel in contact with “criminals” who threatened to rob tourists during the global soccer showcase. As controversy continued to rage over the eNews bulletin in which two “criminals” were shown making threats against foreign visitors, police confirmed that a Soweto man, Lucky Phungula, had committed suicide on Tuesday morning. The 43-year-old left behind a suicide note that appeared to blame his friend and journalist Mpho Lakaje, who produced the controversial report, for making his life “a mess”. But SA Press Coincil vice chairman Bewyn Petersen said the subpoena infringed media freedom and freedom of speech. He said in a letter published in Business Day that the police, “using laws that existed under apartheid”, were seeking to circumvent the journalists’ right to report without fear and the public’s right to know by issuing the subpoena. SA police minister Nathi Mthethwa subpoenaed two eNews journalists to reveal the identity of the men who made their criminal intentions known in an interview aired last Friday. Police spokesman Inspector Kay Makhubela told The Times police were trying to get hold of Lakaje. “We need to speak to him to find out what actually happened with Lucky. We want to find out from Mpho what is this ‘mess’ Lucky talks about,” Makhubela said. Phungula’s sister Irene found him slumped on the bathroom floor of his home in Zola, Soweto. The note and poison were found near his body. The note, written in English and isiZulu, said: “Mpho Lakaje you put me in [a] mess.” In a cellphone message to his girlfriend on Monday, Phungula wrote: “Mpho has put me through big trouble with this e.tv issue, I don’t have a life.” Police say they will investigate “all possible avenues” that led to the suicide. Makhubela said police believed Phungula might be one of the two men who appeared in the e.tv footage. Police were searching for the second man interviewed. Government and media commentators were yesterday divided in their opinions about eNews’s handling of the story. Minister Mthethwa and the ANC insisted the channel should have handed over the criminals to police. Media analyst Professor Anton Harber said there were two questions about the matter; was eNews wise in airing the story; was there enough public interest to merit treating criminals in this way and giving them the platform? and, the question of the reaction of the authorities and the subpoenaing of the journalists. “I think that we are looking to attack the messenger,” he said. Mthethwa and national police commissioner Bheki Cele lambasted the channel, saying it was justifying the interests of and harbouring criminals. On Monday, Lakaje and eNews group news editor Ben Said were summonsed to court under a section of the Criminal Procedure Act used to compel unco-operative witnesses to give evidence. Media specialists slammed the move, saying it breached the principles of press freedom. After Phungula’s death, the broadcaster released a statement saying: “This man was our source for a recent story where we interviewed two members of the criminal underworld. “This man was our only link to those criminals. He helped us of his own free will.” The ANC has come out in defence of the police, saying they had a right to demand that eNews hand over the “criminals”.