There appears to be a general misunderstanding as regards the legal obligation of a journalist when he or she learns of corrupt activity whether during the course and scope of performing his or her duties as a journalist or not.
This misunderstanding came into sharp focus this week following news of the release of a book by a journalist, Pieter-Louis Myburgh, in which he allegedly (I have not yet read the book) chronicles alleged corrupt activity by a senior politician of the ruling party.
Some people on social media suggested that the author should report his allegations to the police; others even went as far as to suggest that he has a legal obligation to report his allegations to the police. A well-known media personality then tweeted:
<:”I am just gobsmacked at number of people who truly believe journalists should ‘go to the police’. NOWHERE in the world do journalists do that. It is completely outside the ethics of journalism. Layers, doctors also restricted. Journalists expose rot, police must do the rest.”>/
Journalists in South Africa seem to believe that they can never be compelled to answer questions at a Commission of Inquiry (or a court) on the subject of their story, whatever the circumstances. This is incorrect. A journalist can be compelled to testify unless to do so would infringe upon his or her constitutional right or freedom unjustifiably. But whether compulsion would infringe upon any such right or freedom depends on the nature of each question, and can become clear only when the question is put (see Nel v Le Roux 1996 (3) SA 562 (CC) at para ).
There is in our law no general absolution of journalists from answering questions about their story in a Commission setting. Freedom of the press and other media does not provide license to a journalist to spread a false narrative about people, and then hide behind the sanctity of sources and press freedom.
The media in South Africa has some serious introspection to do in its coverage of Commissions of Inquiry. There are too many instances where it appears that some journalists have become emboldened to mount vitriolic attacks on judges personally for making judgments that the journalist does not like or with which the journalist disagrees.
Take the case of Jiba and Another v General Council of the Bar of SA and Another; Mrwebi v General Council of the Bar  3 All SA 622 (SCA) which found that the conduct of the two appellants did not deserve ultimate censure of being struck off the roll of advocates. A journalist, writing for Daily Maverick, so personally and trenchantly attacked two judges of the Supreme Court of Appeal in July 2018, effectively associating them with corruption at the highest level of government, that the General Council of the Bar of SA, the party on the losing end of that judgment, was moved to issue a media statement condemning the attack.
If judges can be so wantonly attacked by a journalist just because the journalist does not like the judgment, what hope does a Commissioner have in a Commission of Inquiry when issuing a report containing recommendations that are inconsistent with the narrative already carved out by journalists for an outcome favoured by them? Should the Commissioner wait until then, in the hope that the General Council of the Bar will condemn the attack, or should the Commissioner be given statutory powers to nip this undesirable and inappropriate practice in the bud?
What deterrent effect does an ex post facto condemnation of such personal attacks on judges have? I have not seen any.
There is another burgeoning phenomenon in South Africa: that of “a political analyst”. The South African variety is difficult to place as the same person could one day be a radio talk-show host, a television show host the next, an analyst the next day, and a journalist when called for. Most striking is that the “political analyst” is often readily identifiable with one political narrative and leader, pushing that leader’s line at every opportunity, and exhibiting unmasked hostility towards another political narrative and leaders, excoriating them at every opportunity.
Such “a political analyst” poses a greater threat to a Commission of Inquiry because, as she is no “media” or “press” when wearing the “political analyst” hat, the media regulator can arguably have no power over her for misrepresenting facts given at a Commission. When posing as a hired gun, she can snipe with impunity at witnesses who present evidence that is unfavourable to her favoured politician or narrative.
What is the Commission to do in such circumstances: Issue a warning that such exploits “obstruct the Commission in the performance of its functions”, which the Commissions Act proscribes, or “prejudice the Inquiry”, which the “State Capture” Commission regulations prohibits, and so constitutes a criminal offence?