The lead investigator for the Zondo Commission, Frank Dutton. File picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)

i* This story has been updated

Durban - The Zondo Commission of inquiry has used strong-arm tactics to try and force Independent Media to violate the Press Council code of conduct by divulging sources and the contents of an interview that could compromise a source.

It is a move that has been slammed by Sanef, who said the Zondo Commission investigators should not use the media to do their work for them.

Civil society organisation Right2Know, also weighed in, saying they were concerned about the infringement of media freedom.

The attempt to force an Independent Media journalist to reveal confidential information is being spearheaded by retired police officer and Zondo commission investigator Frank Dutton.

In August Independent Media journalist Bongani Hans published a story in which former KwaZulu-Natal parliamentary speaker Meshack Radebe revealed that he witnessed bribes being paid to ANC delegates during the 2017 conference.

The story had attracted the attention of Advocate Paul Hoffman, SC, of the lobby group founder of Accountability Now who emailed the reporter on October 8, and demanded to know details about the reporter's interaction with Radebe. 

Hoffman tried to corner the reporter to hand over his notes and recordings of the interview and suggests the reporter  has been unethical in his conduct.

Then BizNews published a report on October 11,  ‘A ‘drum roll’ for Independent Newspapers - Paul Hoffman, SC” in which Hoffman published his questions sent to the reporter and claimed “The failure of Mr Hans to respond to the emailed letter in any way shape or form before the expiry of the deadline set in it speaks volumes.”

The reporter wrote to Hoffman, saying he had missed the email but was shocked that he was painted as an unethical journalist as Hoffman did not try other avenues to contact him.

Hoffman responded: “I will accept your apology if you give me a detailed reply to the queries raised in my email to you”

While Hoffman was exerting pressure on the reporter to provide him with information that could compromise a source, Dutton then got involved. 

On October 13 he contacted the reporter, told him that Hoffman had sent him information concerning the Radebe interview and Dutton demanded any transcripts of the interview. 

The reporter told Dutton that he was concerned about the ethical implications of Dutton’s request. Dutton, in fact, had tried to manoeuvre himself into a position to force the reporter to divulge sources and confidential information without initiating a formal process.

On Monday, Dutton then arrived at Independent Media offices in Durban where he asked to speak to Yogas Nair, KZN Executive Editor.

Last week, Dutton, after weeks of pursuing the reporter, sent an SMS to Nair asking to chat to her about the audio.

Nair did not respond.

Nair told Dutton on Monday that he needed to send through a formal request, in writing, for anything he required.

"He demanded I give him an assurance I have the audio in safekeeping. I repeated my call for him to send through a formal request.

"He then said he had no choice but to issue summons for me and the reporter to appear before the commission," said Nair.

She described his behaviour as a violation of media freedom and protection of sources.

"This smacks of bullying and underhanded tactics. We will not stand for such behaviour."

The executive director at the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) Kate Skinner, said the Zondo Commission investigators need to do their own investigations and they can not use the media to do their work for them.

“They must go directly to the named source and follow up from there. It will have a chilling effect on media freedom and access to information if the media have to reveal their sources and if they are seen as part of the investigating arms of the police, commissions of inquiry etc.Sanef has for many years been campaigning  for journalists to be exempted from Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act ( which has been used in the past to try to force disclosure of confidential sources)," she said.  

Skinner added that they have met with and lobbied various ministers of justice to this effect over the years as the principle of protection of sources is something they have always fought hard for.

Right2 Know meanwhile said the Zondo investigators cannot force the journalist to reveal information that was given to him confidentially. 

“Confidentiality of sources is central to the ethics of journalism. If the investigators want the said names then they can approach Radebe who witnessed the exchange of cash first hand. They already have the name of the person who witnessed a transgression they must go after that person and not harass a journalist related to an already published story.”

The organisation said they were concerned about the investigator’s actions and what it meant for media freedom. “The media plays an important role in keeping those in power in check and holding them accountable for their actions, it is a vital cog of any democratic society. In fact, reporters are often contacted first when one wants to expose or disseminate crucial information to inform the public about important matters in confidentiality. It would be sad if we were to allow that line of communication to be threatened by state and non-state agents.”  

“As the Right2Know Campaign, we are concerned about the growing acts of targeting journalists in the line of duty by state and non-state agents who infringe on press freedom. The media environment is increasingly getting unduly restricted and we need to fight against such.”

The commission's spokesperson Reverend Mbuyiselo Stemela said he would need more time to respond. 

Dutton and fellow investigator Lionel Groenewald (who accompanied Dutton to Independent Media on Monday) have been asked to respond. 

This story will be updated as soon as they respond to queries.

Political Bureau