Fact or fiction, this paper has been pulped

By Shaun Smillie

The weekly newspaper Mail & Guardian was forced to pulp Friday's edition, after the Johannesburg High Court banned it from printing an article on the "Oilgate" scandal.

Late on Thursday night, the Mail & Guardian was instructed by Johannesburg High Court Judge Vas Soni not to print a follow-up article pertaining to the oil company Imvume Management. Judge Soni also banned journalists covering the hearing from disclosing any details about the article.

The Mail & Guardian published an article last week alleging that Imvume had made an R11-million donation to the African National Congress in late 2003, after the state petrochemical company PetroSA had paid a R15-million advance payment to Imvume's Swiss partner, Glencore International, for feedstock for PetroSA's Mossel Bay gas-to-liquid-fuel plant.

Imvume applied on Thursday afternoon for an urgent interdict to have the follow-up article in Friday's edition of the Mail & Guardian dropped.

After the judgment, Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee said that while her newspaper would respect the decision of the court, it was nonetheless "not a great day for press freedom".

"Effectively we have been gagged," she said.

She also said this could have serious financial implications for her newspaper: "We have estimated this could cost the paper R1,5-million, and considering that we're a small newspaper, this would be a serious loss."

The paper was forced to pulp what had already been printed, and a second edition had to be made up for a print run early on Friday morning.

"The newspaper will not be in the shops on Friday morning," Haffajee said.

Advocate Nazeer Cassim, on behalf of Imvume, had contended that the information in the article had been obtained illegally, and that if printed, his client's right to privacy and dignity would be infringed.

The information regarded bank statements, payees and forensic financial data.

Advocate John Campbell, for the Mail & Guardian, argued that the story had been verified through other sources, and that those cited in the article had been given the opportunity to respond. He also said it was in the public interest that the article be printed.

However, Judge Soni ruled that the applicant's constitutional right to privacy had been infringed.

"It is an overwhelming conclusion that the conduct of the respondent is to be condemned," said Soni.

The Mail & Guardian had received a letter from Imvume on May 23, asking the newspaper to divulge how they had obtained banking information. The paper did not respond to the letter.

Soni said that if the Mail & Guardian had told the court how it had obtained the information, the judgment could have been different.

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