News and Information
Media face treason trial gag
|October 8, 2004
| WERNER MENGES
THE prosecution in the Caprivi high treason trial at Grootfontein has asked the court to place a partial limit on the media's reporting of the trial.
Citing concerns over the safety of the third witness the State intends calling to testify, State Advocate Taswald July yesterday asked High Court Judge Elton Hoff to order the media not to reveal the identity of the person.
July's application was met with stiff opposition from the defence team, with it being labelled "unconstitutional, ill-prepared, unfounded and baseless", and a bid to gag the press rather than an attempt to protect a witness.
Today the court is set to continue hearing evidence, and possibly arguments too, on the issue, before it is expected to make a ruling.
July told the court of the application after he had called the prosecution's third witness to the witness stand early yesterday morning.
In accordance with an indication from Judge Hoff that the media should refrain from revealing the witness's identity until he had ruled on the State's application, his name will not be reported at this stage.
The application was prompted by the extensive reporting of the testimony of the State's second witness in the trial, Oscar Mwisepi, and specifically the publication of not only his name but also photographs of him, July told the court.
He added that there was hostility in the Caprivi Region towards witnesses who still had to testify.
As a result, these witnesses had raised concerns about the protection of their and their families‚ identities.
"There is resentment - to say the least - about those witnesses who are to testify," he said.
The third witness had expressed the wish that his identity not be revealed in the media, July stated.
The witness himself told the Judge from the witness stand that in 1998 he had gone "into the bush" to join "this organisation" -- understood to refer to a movement that aimed to secede the Caprivi Region.
He related that some of his relatives supported his membership of such an organisation, while some did not, and that those who supported it had since made remarks to him that he interpreted as meaning that he might be killed if his current relationship with the Police continued.
He said that if his photo or identity were published in the media, people at his village near Katima Mulilo would be troubled and would ask why he had been allowed to testify.
He was asking the court to protect not only himself, but also his family members who were against the idea of seceding the Caprivi Region, he told the Judge.
July appeared to be at pains to stress that he was not asking for a total ban on the media reporting the trial proceedings and, specifically, on the publication of the testimony given by witnesses.
"In fact, the State wants the Namibian nation to know why the accused have been in custody for five years," he told Judge Hoff.
"The State believes the public has a right to know, but it is for the court to know more, and that includes the identity of the witness," July said.
Defence counsel Henry Chanda received murmurs of agreement from the accused in the dock as he told the Judge that the prosecution was proceeding from a wrong premise, which was that they regarded the accused as guilty already.
Saying the accused were entitled to know their adversaries in open court, Chanda stated:"My clients have been known by the whole world in newspapers and on television.
Why can't their accusers be known by the whole world on television and in newspapers?" Defence lawyer Winnie Sithole Mwenda told the Judge that the State's application was "merely meant to gag the press".
The Constitution granted people the right to information, and that right included the right to know the identity of witnesses, especially in a case such as the one the court was dealing with, she commented.
According to defence team member Greyson Nyoni, the risk that the State's third witness might carry was a risk that any witness in any criminal trial might bear.
He remarked that the prosecution's witnesses had already been under protection for five years, during which their identities and witness statements to the Police had not been revealed to the accused, and that it would not be fair that such a witness should continue to enjoy such protection unnecessarily.
Defence counsel Patrick Kauta also joined his colleagues in attacking July's application.
Labelling it "unconstitutional", Kauta argued that "this so-called gag order" would have no effect.
He said any member of the public - including relatives of the accused - should still be able to attend the court proceedings and would then be able to reveal the witness's identity in their home areas in the Caprivi Region, which is where the witness comes from.
Defence team member Percy McNally is set to cross-question the witness on his claims when proceedings resume today.
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