Journalists are not above law

January 19, 2010 Edition 1 – Pretoria News

THERE is fury, particularly in police circles, after e.tv news interviewed two self-confessed criminals whose faces were concealed from the audience. These two men threatened to rob and even murder foreigners during the World Cup and one loaded his gun in front of the camera. Clearly, these men were taunting the police and threatening chaos. There is a debate raging as to whether e.tv should have shown these interviews and whether they should have alerted police and got these thugs arrested. E.tv was within its rights to have screened these interviews. We need to hear all views – the good and the bad. But, the question now is whether or not the station should co-operate with the police by releasing the original footage showing the men’s faces so that they can be identified and arrested? Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa and National Police Commissioner, Bheki Cele, labelled the screening of the interviews as “regrettable and reckless” and ordered an immediate investigation. Mthethwa said: “Such utterances (of the men interviewed) constitute acts of intimidation in that these scoundrels make it clear that they intend to rob and shoot and, if needs be, murder any law enforcement official or citizen who tries to stop them. Cele said the footage serves to promote “thuggery and violence” while Mthethwa said the repeated airing of the clip promoted unlawfulness and created a climate of fear. One of the major cornerstones of journalistic ethics is to protect ones sources. But, where do you draw the line? Are we journalists first, before being patriotic South Africans and decent human beings? I think that every case, including the subpoenaing of reporters in terms of section 205 – where they can be compelled to pass on information – should be taken on merit. In this case, there may well be a good case for disclosing details of the criminals. Crime affects each and every one of us. We know how criminals terrorise communities and here we have criminals brazenly intimidating the public and visitors to our country on television. Can you imagine the response of foreigners wanting to travel to South Africa for the World Cup if they get to see this story? Some may argue that drug dealers, fraudsters and other wrong-doers are often interviewed by the media so what makes this case different? Here, the men are threatening serious violent crimes and you and I could be the victims. You may recall some years ago when cash heist kingpin, Colin Chauke, escaped from prison. He was on the run for 410 days. He called the 702 newsroom and granted a reporter an interview. We took a decision immediately to alert police. In my view, e.tv, should have done the same. They should have alerted authorities immediately so that these dangerous would-be robbers and killers could have been nabbed. The media’s job is to inform and educate the public. But, it also has a responsibility. It could be said “what’s new about these two criminals?” when there are many others out there, not being arrested. It is the moral and civic duty of each and every South African to assist in making our country safer where they can, and this does not exclude us in the media. Journalists are not above the law. We must ask ourselves with stories like this if we are acting in the national interest or whether we are acting in our own to gain readers, listeners or viewers. I really hope that the two criminals featured on e.tv are identified, arrested and brought before a court without delay. We cannot allow gun-toting criminals to act with impunity.

*Yusuf Abramjee is Head of News and Current Affairs at Primedia Broadcasting and he writes this column in his personal capacity. He is also chairperson of the National Press Club. READ the response from Andries Cornelissen, Managing Editor: News and Sport – Jacaranda 94.2fm and comment in the forum. To give your own response, register with the easy steps as a user in the forum.

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