Right to si­lence

The Witness - - OPINION - AN­THONY TIMMS Cra­mond

AN­OTHER whis­tle-blower has been mur­dered, the sec­ond in the Gup­talinked Estina saga (The Wit­ness Oc­to­ber 24). The first one be­ing an au­di­tor in the Free State Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

By all ac­counts the vic­tim, Phile­mon Ng­wenya, was an out­spo­ken per­son. His iden­tity, there­fore, would have been known to the per­pe­tra­tors. So the ques­tion is not whether his cover was blown by the jour­nal­ists break­ing the story, but rather, were there suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion mea­sures in place with re­gards to his safety? It seems not.

The above sad sit­u­a­tion im­pacts di­rectly on the code of con­duct for jour­nal­ists, which is to keep the iden­tity of whis­tle-blow­ers se­cret at all costs.

Con­duc­tors of mul­ti­mil­lion rand scams, deals, du­bi­ous busi­ness ven­tures, etc. who stand to lose ev­ery­thing if found out, won’t hes­i­tate to kill. There­fore, to put pres­sure on jour­nal­ists to di­vulge the iden­ti­ties of their sources is to com­pro­mise their safety.

When one looks at South African so­ci­ety as a whole, and the Con­sti­tu­tion, ev­ery­one, in his or her pri­vate ca­pac­ity or work en­vi­ron­ment is seem­ingly pro­tected in­so­far as free­dom of speech is con­cerned. (Ob­vi­ously not hate speech.) For in­stance, in an ar­rest sit­u­a­tion, the well-known phrase: “You have the right to re­main silent”, is heard. This is pro­tec­tion for the law­break­ers.

Jour­nal­ists don’t have such pro­tec­tion. They are hounded and per­se­cuted, even in­car­cer­ated, should they dare try to pro­tect their sources. The only pro­tec­tion they have is their own prin­ci­pled, ded­i­cated ap­proach to abide by their code of con­duct at all costs. This should guar­an­tee, in a way, the safety of all con­cerned. Forced to vi­o­late this code of con­duct would ul­ti­mately set in mo­tion a neg­a­tive chain re­ac­tion, from dis­trust to cul­mi­nat­ing even­tu­ally in an open sea­son for crim­i­nally minded peo­ple and no more whis­tle-blow­ing.

There are still some strong and prin­ci­pled “old-school” jour­nal­ists, such as Nicola Jones (The Wit­ness, Oc­to­ber 26) and oth­ers, around, who will not wilt.

How­ever, more needs to be done to pro­tect these jour­nal­ists and their sources, es­pe­cially the younger and less-ex­pe­ri­enced, so as to al­low them to do their jobs with­out fear or prej­u­dice.

No doubt there are the “bad ap­ples”, but these can, and should, be weeded out.

I be­lieve the an­swer to this dilemma, lies with the Con­sti­tu­tion. It should be re­dressed to al­low jour­nal­ists “the right to re­main silent”.

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