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Pertoria - The media will not be allowed to attend the Refugees Appeal Board hearing regarding the future status of controversial Czechoslovakian businessman Radovan Krejcir in South Africa, the Pretoria High Court has ruled.
Judge Hans Fabricius said while the constitution did provide for freedom of expression, this was not an absolute right and there were limitations. He said there was a limitation to the “open justice” principle.
Independent Newspapers, Media24 and the Mail & Guardian had asked the court to set aside the decision by the Refugees Appeal Board not to allow the media access to the Krejcir hearing.
The media houses made it clear that it was not an application that all refugee hearings should be open to the media, but that there should be exceptions to the rule that barred outsiders from these hearings.
It was argued that the rules under the Refugees Act gave the appeal board a discretion to decide whether to allow the media to attend and report on hearings. It was said that where there was secrecy, there could be no accountability.
A section of the Refugee Act states that “a refugee enjoys full legal protection”, while another states that the confidentiality of asylum applications and information contained therein must be ensured at all times.
The judge said “all times” in his view did not mean “sometimes.”
He said the media houses made “great play” that Krejcir was a public figure at his own instance and that he gave and sought interviews and attracted attention to his way of life. It was the applicants’ case that access to the appeal board hearing was justified in this instance.
Judge Fabricius said he regarded the integrity of the asylum system as a crucial feature, because asylum seekers were usually vulnerable and they might choose not to approach the refugees board or not divulge all, as they often feared for their lives.
The board could not have a discretion as to whether to allow the media access to these hearings, the judge said.
“If asylum seekers do not know, even before they lodge applications, that confidentiality will be respected under all circumstances, there is a realistic chance that some may not lodge applications at all, or will not be completely candid about what they disclose.
“A blanket ban on access by the general public is therefore justified in my view.”
Judge Fabricius said that whatever crime Krejcir might have committed in South Africa, this was irrelevant to the media’s right to attend the hearing. He said that according to recent press reports, all criminal charges had in any event been withdrawn against Krejcir.
“For obvious reasons I do not know what the further intention of the prosecuting authority is. If any acts committed in South Africa are relevant, closing the hearing has virtually no impact on the right and opportunity of the media to report on such. They would be able to attend any relevant criminal court hearing.”
The judge added that if there was indeed a public interest to know the grounds on which Krejcir would or wouldn’t be granted asylum, as opposed to mere public curiosity, then this curiosity had to yield to the more general interest in the integrity of the asylum system and its confidentiality proceedings.
The judge did not make a ruling on costs.