South African newspaper gagged in 'Oilgate' scandal

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A South African court has forced one of the country's most respected newspapers to recall an edition's entire print run over a report alleging an illegal donation to President Thabo Mbeki's ruling party from a state oil company.

The Johannesburg High Court's decision to ban the venerable weekly Mail and Guardian newspaper from publishing a follow-up article to the scandal dubbed "Oilgate" sent shockwaves across South Africa's media fraternity, which condemned it as the greatest assault on freedom of expression since the demise of apartheid in 1994.

It has also put pressure on President Mbeki's ruling African National Congress to come clean on the issue with the opposition Democratic Alliance, demanding an official independent inquiry.

Financing of political parties from state coffers is illegal in South Africa.

In its edition of 20 May, the Mail and Guardian, which has also exposed South Africans involved in busting UN oil sanctions against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, alleged that the equivalent of £1.1m in taxpayers' funds were illegally diverted to boost the ANC's coffers before the 2004 elections.

The money was allegedly released by the state-owned oil company PetroSA, and channelled to the ANC via Imvume Management, a company owned by a businessman with close links to the ANC.

The newspaper's editor, Ferial Haffajee, said a follow-up article due to have been published in yesterday's edition would have provided further information about individuals, most probably top ANC officials, who also allegedly benefited from Oilgate.

But the High Court judge Justice Vas Soni, himself a former senior journalist on the now defunct Rand Daily Mail, found Imvume Management and PetroSA's rights to privacy more compelling than the public's right to be informed about how state funds were allegedly illegally used to bankroll a political party. "The media cannot elevate itself to be above the law," said the judge, ruling that the Mail and Guardian should have given the two firms adequate time to respond to the allegations. This was after the firms had filed an urgent application seeking to ban the newspaper from publishing any further articles on the matter.

The newspaper's entire print run of 45,000 had to be recalled to comply with the judge's order. Police were reportedly stationed at the newspaper's printers to enforce compliance.

Total losses to the newspaper were still being calculated last night.

Copies of the Mail and Guardian which began trickling into the streets late yesterday afternoon had the word "Gagged" in large red letters across the front pages. All pages carrying the "Oilgate scandal" had been rendered unreadable.

Justice Soni's ruling "had taken South Africa back 15 years" and was a very serious setback for media freedom, said Witswatersrand University's journalism professor, Anthon Harber, who edited the Mail and Guardian when it was repeatedly shut down by apartheid regimes in the 1980s over its criticism of white minority rule.

The Democratic Alliance's spokesman on justice, Hellen Zille, said her party found it wholly unacceptable that a company's "right to privacy" should override the imperatives of freedoms of the press and expression and the taxpayers' rights to know how their money was used.

In any other normal democratic country, a scandal of this magnitude, if proved, would inevitably bring down an entire government, she said.

"The greatest assault on freedom since 1994," was how the Inkatha Freedom Party, the largest black opposition party, described the ruling.

Just about every media freedom body in South Africa, including the South African Editors Forum, joined the condemnation of the ruling.

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