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IPI supports "The Citizen" newspaper in constitutional challenge

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 18 March 2010 - The International Press Institute (IPI) today declared its support for the position of the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) and Appeal Judge KK Mthiyane in the case of The Citizen vs. Robert McBride.

IPI believes that South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeals (SCA) ruled in contravention of the right to freedom of speech - as guaranteed in South Africa's Constitution - when it upheld a defamation ruling against daily newspaper The Citizen last month.

The SCA said the newspaper had, in fact, defamed Robert McBride in a series of 2003 articles that described McBride as a "murderer." The Citizen is now preparing to challenge this ruling in the country's Constitutional Court.

The complaint against the newspaper was sparked by its criticism of McBride's appointment as head of the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police. The Citizen said that because of McBride's involvement in the Magoo's Bar – Why Not Restaurant bombing in 1986, he was unfit for the post. McBride, who was involved in the militant anti-apartheid wing of the African National Congress, was sentenced to death for planting the bomb that killed three and injured 69 others, but was granted amnesty in 2001 under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act.

The SCA decision was based on a provision in Chapter 3 of the Act which states that the amnesty granted has the effect that "any entry or record of the conviction shall be deemed to be expunged from all official documents or records and the conviction shall for all purposes [. . .] be deemed not to have taken place."

Judge Mthiyane dissented in a minority judgment, arguing that The Citizen had met the required standards of fair comment, noted that the statements were factually accurate, and said that the SCA majority interpretation of the Act "will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution," The Citizen reported earlier this month.

In a 10 March statement, Sanef said that the ruling "raises a fundamental issue of press freedom in that it would compel the media to be party to the falsification of history, with dire consequences for their credibility." The group further noted that the ruling effectively "turns fact into falsehood."

The International Press Institute agrees with Sanef and Judge Mthiyane that there is a difference between legal records, from which the conviction was expunged, and historical fact.

"Journalists have a right to report on matters in the public interest," said IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills. "IPI supports The Citizen's challenge to the SCA decision, and hopes that the Constitutional Court will rule in favor of free expression. We are well aware of the important role that the National Unity and Reconciliation Act has played in South Africa. However, the Act should not be used to justify what amounts to censorship."

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