The Public Protector will investigate a complaint over former presidential spokesman Mac Maharajs stay in a ministerial home. File photo: Sizwe Ndingane

Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Nic Dawes says there is “no basis” for the criminal charges laid on Saturday by attorneys acting for presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj against the newspaper and two of its investigative reporters.

“We view this as a clear ploy to use the police to go after our sources,” Dawes told Independent Newspapers.

In a brief statement Maharaj said his attorneys had laid a criminal charge and had asked the SAPS “to investigate the possible theft of the records of various inquiries conducted by the National Prosecuting Authority”.

The move came a day after the M&G hit the shelves with a front page bearing a banner “censored”. Large sections of the lead story were blacked out, reminiscent of a tactic resorted to by newspapers during the apartheid-era state of emergency in the 1980s.

The Mail & Guardian story is about Maharaj and testimony before an in-camera Section 28 inquiry under the National Prosecuting Act, which makes it illegal to disclose evidence gathered in such an inquiry – unless the Director of Public Prosecutions agrees – and specifies a maximum 15-year jail term.

When reporters Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer approached Maharaj’s lawyers for comment on their story, the reply came in the form of a letter warning of potential criminal proceedings.

That letter, from BDK Attorneys, a firm known to specialise in criminal litigation, makes reference to “the so-called arms deal investigation” and related questions.

The newspaper decided to withhold publication, pending an appeal to prosecutions boss Menzi Simelane.

“We believe we have every right to publish the information which raises serious questions about the conduct of the man who speaks on behalf of the president,” Dawes said on the newspaper’s website.

In response, Maharaj said on Friday that “through their sensational and at times distorted reportage, they want to deflect attention from their wrongdoing and depict my upholding of my rights embodied in our laws as a threat to media freedom”.

- Sunday Argus