If the SABC internal audit report is to be believed, the head of the SABC’s legal services, Mafika Sihlali, is a fraudster and a thief of the most brazen kind. It is clearly in the public interest that such explosive allegations made by the most credible of institutions – the SABC internal auditing committee – be aired in public.
After all, we pay our TV licenses and have a right to know about serious, credible allegations of theft and fraud at the public broadcaster. However, Judge Lettie Molopa, of the Pretoria High Court disagrees. In the early hours of Saturday morning she granted an interdict against the Mail and Guardian prohibiting it from publishing details of the internal report.
She argued that Mr. Sihlali did not have sufficient time to respond to the allegations made in the report. Focusing on the potential harmful effect of publication on Sihlali she said: “No doubt once the article is published it will definitely destroy the applicant.” She said it was “just and equitable” to interdict the Mail and Guardian.
I find the logic of the learned judge, well, spectacularly flawed.
It is true that the findings in the internal audit report is damning, as it contains recommendations that Mr. Sihlali should be criminally prosecuted for theft and fraud. If the findings of the report are correct, Mr. Sihlali should surely also be barred from ever acting as an attorney again. The report finds prima facie evidence that Sihlali has defrauded the SABC of almost 2 million Rand. The fraud allegedly started only 3 weeks after he started working at the SABC.
He did this by allegedly irregularly outsourcing work to his own law firm, charging double for VAT, claiming double payments for work and giving work to his friends.
Troubling also is the fact that the Head of the SABC, Dali Mpofu (called a compulsive, sophisticated liar by Winnie Mandela in 1992) shares directorships with Sihlali in nine different companies, which are active in financial services, advisory services and mining. In addition, SABC chairperson Eddie Funde and Pearl Luthuli, the head of SABC3, share a directorship with him on Onetel, a publicly listed telecommunications company.
So far neither Mpofu or the SABC Board has taken any action against Sihlali despite the existence of the report. This seems fishy in the extreme.
In this context the judgment from the High Court seems deeply troubling. It seems to me not to have taken into account or misinterpreting the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeal in Midi Television (Pty) Ltd vs National Directorate of Public Prosecutions.
In that case Judge Nugent argued that a publication could only be gagged if the prejudice that the publication might cause is demonstrable and substantial and there is a real risk that the prejudice will occur if publication takes place. Mere conjecture or speculation that prejudice might occur will not be enough. Even then the court would not gag a paper unless it believes that the disadvantage of curtailing the free flow of information outweighs its advantage.
In making that evaluation the court will not only consider the interests of the newspaper but, more important, the interests of every individual in having access to information. The interest of the public to know would be even more important where the state is trying to stop the publication of embarrassing information and where they would not be able to show that the publication would infringe any of the other rights in the Constitution.
In this case, Judge Molopa decided that the interest of one person – a servant of the people working for the public broadcaster who have been convincingly implicated in criminal activity – should weigh heavier that the interest of the 45 million South Africans who have a right to know how their TV licence fees and taxes are spent and how the public broadcaster deals with corruption in its midst.
This she could only do by not giving any weight to the interest of the 45 million ordinary South Africans and giving far too much weight to one (relatively important, politically connected and influential) person’s interests. It seems to me that this judgment shows a troubling contempt for the masses of the people and our Constitution, and a surprising loyalty to rich, well-connected elites.
It is profoundly in the public interest (and in the interest of democracy) for the M&G to publish such serious allegations. Mr. Sihlali could have been given the opportunity to respond to the allegations next week, but at some point surely the information would become known and he would suffer the consequences. The mere existence of the report hurts his reputation - the Mail and Guardian is merely reporting on facts but are now punished for this by the Judge. To give an interdict now only postpones the inevitable publication of the allegations that Mr. Sihlali is a crook. Why interdict the paper after it was printed except to teach the Mail and Guardian a lesson?
If Mr. Sihlali did not want to have his reputation destroyed, he should not have acted in a way that provided prima facie evidence of criminal activity to the audit committee. It is not for a judge to protect the actions of such a public servant from public scrutiny, because it sends a signal that the judge does not respect freedom of the media and thinks that the media did something wrong by exposing the credible findings of theft and fraud.