JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - One of South Africa’s most influential newspapers accused a top presidential spokesman on Friday of censoring an article about his possible involvement in a shady arms deal.
The incident could prove to be a further embarrassment to President Jacob Zuma who in recent weeks sacked two ministers found as corrupt in government reports and is also facing renewed calls to account for his actions in the same arms deal.
The weekly Mail & Guardian said it received a letter from presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj saying it could face prosecution if it published an article disclosing details of a police probe into the arms deal from about a decade ago that has led to convictions of other government officials for bribery.
The paper said Maharaj was also implicated. Contents of the article relating to the probe were blacked out by the weekly, known for its investigative reports that have embarrassed Zuma and his ruling African National Congress.
Maharaj said in a statement dated on Thursday that his attorney informed the paper it had acquired documents unlawfully.
“In the name of press freedom the M&G arrogates to itself the ‘right’ to break the law that has been on our statute books since 1998,” he said in the statement.
Maharaj did not make any comment about any involvement in the arms deal.
The 30 billion rand ($3.7 billion) deal to buy European military equipment has clouded South Africa’s politics, and Zuma, for years. Zuma was implicated but not convicted.
The controversy comes as parliament is debating a new law on state secrets that calls for jail time for whistle blowers who divulge classified information and media outlets that publish such documents.
Critics have called the penalties Draconian and said the bill is aimed at intimidating media outlets trying to expose corruption.
Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes said in a Twitter post: “It is very simple: Mac Maharaj is trying to keep his actions secret. We’re trying to tell you about them. We’ll keep trying.”
The paper said it will appeal to the national prosecutors for permission to publish details of evidence that came out in closed court proceedings. It said it faced up to a 15 year jail term if it published them without the permission.
Maharaj, a political veteran who took up the post earlier this year, has had running battles with the media, complaining about perceived slights to the president and using the country’s Press Freedom Day to tell media to take a softer line on Zuma. ($1 = 8.164 South African Rand)
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Marius Bosch