What is a journalist to do when he or she is sued for defamation and the company or individual pursuing the defamation case demands that the journalist reveals his or her confidential sources on which the reporter relied when writing the alleged defamatory story? This is exactly what happened to Adriaan Basson when he was still working at the Mail & Guardian.
A company called Bosasa is suing Basson and the Mail & Guardian for publishing a story headed: “Very brave for a young man”. The article relates the facts around a chilling phone call received by Basson from communication strategist Benedicta Dube. Basson was perturbed by the phone call because it transpired that Dube knew where and what Basson had studied, where he was born, and what his ID number was. She also read to him the names of some of Basson’s friends and their professions. During their conversation of almost 18 minutes Dube also threw in lines such as: “You are very brave for a young man” and said she would “kill” Basson if he told anyone about their conversation. She has not sued Basson for reporting this phone call, so one must assume that his version of the phone call is true, which is kind of scary.
Bosasa did sue, because in the article Basson claims that he had exposed in the Mail & Guardian over a period of three weeks “the corrupt relationship between facilities management company Bosasa and the Department of Correctional Services”. Bosasa did not like being called corrupt (or perhaps it is the claim that the corruption originated from a relationship with the Department of Correctional Services that got them upset) and as part of its pre-trial manoeuvres, it demanded some documents from Basson and the Mail & Guardian. They provided the relevant documents but with the names of their sources redacted.
In a preliminary legal skirmish the parties asked the South Gauteng High Court to determine whether Basson and the Mail & Guardian had a legal right to protect their sources in this way – despite having a defamation case brought against it. In a judgment written by Tsoka J, which seems to deal with the potentially dry legal question of the correct interpretation of Rule 35 of the Uniform Rules of Court, the learned judge made an important ruling in defence of the freedom of the media.
Sub rule 2 of Rule 35 states that a party is not expected to produce documents or tape recordings “in respect of which he has a valid objection”. Tsoka pointed out that all the relevant documents were indeed disclosed. The only question was whether Basson and the Mail & Guardian had a valid objection against revealing the names of their sources. The Rule, said the judge, had to be interpreted in the light of section 16 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the media. Bosasa claimed that if it were denied access to the names of the confidential sources its right to a fair trial would be infringed.
As an aside: the latter claim by Bosasa is a peculiar, one might think perhaps a Freudian, slip on the part of Bosasa as it is not facing criminal charges and its right to a fair trial is thus not implicated at all. This is a civil case in which it is claiming damages from Basson and the Mail & Guardian for alleged defamation for damage to its reputation. (Basson and the newspaper claims, rather cheekily, that Bosasa has no reputation that could have been damaged by the article as the company is widely associated with corrupt activities.)
Tsoka J, quoting extensively from the important Constitutional Court case in Khumalo v Holomisa, emphasised the important role played by the print, broadcast and electronic media in the protection of freedom of expression in our society. The media are key agents in ensuring that the right to freedom of expression is enjoyed by all citizens. The ability of each citizen to be a responsible and effective member of our society depends upon the manner in which the media carry out their constitutional mandate. The media are also important agents in ensuring that government is open, responsive and accountable to the people as the founding values of our Constitution require.
In order for the media to do its job, it is imperative that journalists are able to keep their sources confidential. In the absence of a guarantee of confidentiality, many sources would not co-operate with the media and ordinary citizens would be the poorer for it.
Tsoka then looked at the facts of the present case, noting that the contention between the parties is not whether the Mail and Guardian had acted with malice. It was therefore not relevant to its case who the confidential sources of the allegations of corruption were. The story was either true or it was untrue. The judge also rejected arguments that an Australian case which found that a journalist had to reveal his sources had to be applied here, presenting several arguments to justify this rejection. To my mind the best argument raised by the judge why the Australian judgment would not help Bosasa is neatly captured in the following statement by Tsoka J: “In any event, there is no Bill of Rights in Australia.” How it warmed my heart to read those words.
In any case, Tsoka found that the issue in each case would be whether the names of the sources would be pivotal to the case made by the party suing for defamation. Given the fact that Bosasa has to prove that the statements are defamatory and that Basson and the Mail & Guardian then has the onus to show that its defences against a claim of defamation is valid, the names of the newspaper’s sources at this stage is wholly irrelevant. The sources are allegedly employed by Bosasa and are fearful of reprisal, should their identities be revealed. As Bosasa has a duty to deal with the question of whether the allegations made are true or false, it is neither here nor there who the sources are who gave the information to the newspaper.
Although there is not a blanket journalistic privilege never to reveal one’s sources when one is sued for defamation to the contrary, in this case the sources should be protected as their identities are not central to the case and as they exercised a “laudable civic duty” by acting as whistle-blowers in a case of alleged corruption involving the state. The case may be different where a journalist receives information about the commission or pending commission of a serious crime, a journalist would be foolhardy to claim that it had to protect its sources providing such information. But this is not such a case.
Reading the judgment I could not help but wonder about the possible Oscar Wilde effect in a case like this where an institution like Bosasa sues a newspaper for defamation. Had Bosasa considered the risk it is taking? What happens if, during the trial, it becomes clear that the company was indeed embroiled in a corrupt relationship with the Department of Correctional Services? Has the Directors considered the risk of being arrested for corruption if this were to happen?
And why is Bosasa so adamant about getting accesses to the names of those who had leaked information to the Mail & Guardian? Is there any connection between this eagerness of the company to obtain this information and the implicit threat made to Adriaan Basson that he might get killed for investigating Bosasa? As things stand, this case has already been damaging to Bosasa as it has placed some doubt in the minds of reasonable individuals about its behaviour. It might not be corrupt (and this will only be ascertained during the trial), but has it not shot itself in the foot by its heavy handed legal approach to the case?
Is Bosasa and its directors the ones being brave for taking on the Mail & Guardian? After all, cross examination can often be devastating to those who try to hide things. Only time will tell.