Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian, must be feeling pleased with himself these days, and so should local media. The newspaper won not one, but two significant legal battles related to the freedom of access to information in as many weeks.
The first media victory was in the Pretoria high court which ordered that a confidential report on Zimbabwe’s 2002 elections be handed to the investigative newspaper, as we’d predicted. The second is equally significant: It relates to all the tenders that the World Cup local organising committee issued and it looks as if the Mail & Guardian will be poring over volumes of documents to see who was granted what, how much and who benefited around the time the final matches will be played.
That’s if there’s no upset regarding security at the Soccer World Cup – incidentally, it was the issue of security that first alerted the M&G to possible tender irregularities at the World Cup LOC. “When covering the Confederation Cup we had a tip-off regarding some of the contracted security providers that were not being properly registered with the relevant authorities, and concerns were raised about impropriety in the tender process,” said M&G editor Nic Dawes. The newspaper requested information from Danny Jordaan’s outfit, but were refused by the LOC, which stated that it was a “private body”.
“We thought that a bit odd given that there are eight ministers on the LOC board which deals with government money, so we submitted a private body request and they refused that as well. The refusal seemed so outrageous and the stakes so substantial, (that) if we didn’t go to court on this one, when were we going to do so?” Dawes said.
On Tuesday, acting Judge Les Morison of the Johannesburg high court ordered that the LOC tender documents be handed over to the M&G within 30 days. While this is a victory for one newspaper, the precedents set out in the legal process are clearly a triumph for journalism in this country.
“Firstly, this judgment sets out in immense detail a lot of precedent on this issue, and secondly some of the tests that need to be applied. It is crucial that it puts in front of both private and public bodies pretty stern sets of tests for them to refuse access to information. Finally, in awarding costs to the M&G, it removes some of the risks related to this process and puts these on the LOC rather than us,” said Dawes. Together with the positive judgment related to the confidential Zimbabwe election records won recently by the paper it makes this a very strong week for freedom of information in South Africa.
Jordaan’s LOC appears to be doing everything in its power to delay the release of the documents. The LOC claims that there are some 1,700 lever-arch files of information and wants to charge M&G hundreds of thousands of rands for access to the papers. “We contend that most of the information is available in electronic form and the LOC can drop off a few DVDs or we can go an collect a few DVDs.” Clearly some of the documents will be of no value, but what the paper’s investigative team will be looking for is which companies were awarded which tenders, how much are they were worth and who the ultimate beneficiaries of those tenders are. The paper’s recently formed Centre for Investigative Journalism, called amaBhugane, will also probe the track records of companies that were awarded tenders.
The issue is highly relevant, given the fact that the security tender process for the Confederations Cup was so badly bungled. Dawes said security, one of the most crucial elements of the Confederations Cup was “not just slipshod, it was appalling”. Two weeks before kick-off security hadn’t even been finalised. “Large and highly competent security firms pulled out because the conditions imposed by the LOC were ridiculous. They ended up using a tiny firm called Chippa Security Services nobody had heard much about. That gave clear cause for concern, if not on grounds of impropriety, then in terms of incompetence.”
Together with Jordaan’s insistence on drawing a veil over the LOC’s financial matters and tender decision-making processes, the security debacle raised a red flag for the M&G. “Government funding into the LOC was in the hundreds of millions and Fifa put in considerably more. There has been a strong local climate of corruption and Fifa doesn’t exactly have an impeccable record. Where people insist on drawing a veil over financial activities and there is a huge intersection of money, political influence and public power, you have to raise concerns.”
The harsh reality is that Fifa fever has the potential to blind South Africans at a time when they should be keeping their eye on the ball. Billions have been pumped into the Soccer World Cup with little benefit evident for ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who are footing the bill delivered by an increasingly corrupt government. It’s highly possible that, as the nation nurses its collective headache from the world’s biggest soccer party, we’ll be waking up to yet another corruption scandal.
Undoubtedly, the M&G will be the paper to pay great attention to in the coming weeks.
By Mandy de Waal
Read the M&G’s story “LOC ‘too busy’ for M&G court battle”. Read Sunday World’s story on World Cup safety woes. Read The Guardian’s article on Sepp Blatter’s nephew benefiting from World Cup ticket sales.
Visit the M&G’s online home for its investigative journalism unit, amaBhugane