Clampdown feared as journalist arrested
The dramatic arrest of Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika at the newspaper's Johannesburg offices has sparked outrage.
He was whisked away yesterday by at least eight members of the police priority crimes unit the Hawks - without an arrest warrant - on charges of fraud and defeating the ends of justice. Wa Afrika was driven off in an unmarked police car to Mpumalanga.
He was arrested at the newspaper's head office in Rosebank, the venue at the time for a meeting of editors and journalists who had gathered to discuss the threatened Media Appeals Tribunal and the enactment of the Protection of Information Bill.
The Hawks tried to stop photographers from taking pictures of the arrest.
Wa Afrika was handcuffed and taken to his home where the police carried out a search, reportedly removing documents and laptops. His car was later searched at the Rosebank police station.
Though Musa Zondi, spokesman for the Hawks, said Wa Afrika was being arrested in his capacity as a private citizen and not a journalist, it is believed that the arrest was linked to a series of stories published on corruption in Mpumalanga.
At the centre is a letter purportedly written by Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza, announcing his resignation to President Jacob Zuma. The letter, allegedly forged, was faxed to Wa Afrika. The Sunday Times, however, never published a story on the letter.
In response to his arrest, the Sunday Times (sister newspaper of The Times) made a direct appeal to Justice Minister Jeff Radebe and police boss General Bheki Cele to intervene.
According to Zondi, Wa Afrika and two other suspects are expected to appear in the Kabokweni District Court in Mpumalanga today or tomorrow. No further details were made available.
Ray Hartley, editor of the Sunday Times, said: "He was arrested by a large number of policemen in an operation that was clearly designed to intimidate and I can only conclude that this was the true motive for what took place today."
Hartley said he was "deeply concerned" that the newspaper and its lawyers were initially not told where Wa Afrika was being held.
However, last night Hartley said Eric van den Berg, the Sunday Times' legal representative, had managed to speak to the journalist and had established that he was in custody at the Waterval Boven police station.
Earlier, Van den Berg said the police had wanted to arrest Wa Afrika without the necessary written authority and failed to provide lawyers with a warrant after they had assured the police that he was willing to co-operate.
Mabuza's spokesman, Mabutho Sithole, said yesterday the premier had opened a case last month after he was made aware of the fake letter and that he was forced to do so because his signature had been forged.
"We welcome the arrests and the speed in which they were effected. We had to take action because the purpose of concocting that letter was meant to bring chaos in the province," Sithole said.
In response to the arrest, the SA National Editors' Forum chairman, Mondli Makhanya, said the action by police was "brutal", given the discussions between the Sunday Times and the police.
"The arrest comes at a time when we are in discussion about the planned media tribunal. We have every reason to view this act by the police with suspicion," Makhanya said.
Yesterday, opposition political parties slammed the arrest.
DA leader Helen Zille said: "This incident cannot be viewed in isolation from the disturbing trends to stifle media freedom.
"As such, we see it as a sinister forewarning of how media freedom will be infringed by the proposed media tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill."
COPE leader Mbhazima Shilowa said the police action was "in violation of the agreement between the office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, the office of the commissioner of the police, and Sanef, which spells out a clear media process regarding any police action against the media".
Yusuf Abramjee, National Press Club chairman, said while the reasons for Wa Afrika's arrest were unclear, the police's behaviour was unbecoming and should be investigated.
"I was shocked at the way he was arrested. More worrying is that the photographers were prevented from executing their jobs," he said, adding that journalists should be doing their jobs without police interference.
Abramjee immediately contacted Cele's office after the arrest to express his concern over the infringement of Wa Afrika's constitutional rights and to request an urgent meeting to discuss the incident.
Even more "shocking", he said, was the manner in which police effected the arrest.
"I would understand if he was a murderer or rapist, but the heavy-handed police approach was unwarranted."
Jeremy Cronin, SACP deputy general secretary - who earlier yesterday said he was in favour of a media appeals tribunal that would hold publications instead of reporters accountable - said he preferred not to comment on the matter.