15 Mar 2020

Incursions into impropriety have begun

I see that the first ‘incursions into impropriety’ have begun. Those small incursions that chip away at the rights of the individuals, with the approval of members of society who will never think that those incursions will turn against them later on. It is the beginning into the slide on a slippery slope, where people give up rights to authority to ‘feel safe’ but those rights are never ‘returned’. Nazi Germany, Zimbabwe, apartheid South Africa are some places that comes to mind.

The police ‘raid’ on the office of the Express newspaper is the perfect example of rights being trampled upon by authority figures. Freedom of expression (section 4(i)), and freedom of the press (section 4(k)) are both guaranteed rights under our Constitution. Now that the police can no longer bring charges under the Sedition Act, they are going for the vague charge of “Tipping Off” found in section 51 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2000.

A quick review of the Act showed that the charge of “Tipping off” is designed to prevent prejudice at trial for a person charged under the Act. Not to seize evidence which might prove detrimental to the person under investigation, for the purpose of withholding that evidence. No one has been charged in this matter. There is a possible defence under section 49 – a person, acting in a professional capacity and reporting through the relevant supervisory personnel at their workplace, is exempted from this charge.

A point to note: – there is no similar charge or section in the U.K.’s Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Instead, it prohibits authorities from breaching fundamental human rights even in the course of their investigations.

Coming back to the actual search and seizure of material at The Express’ office, there will of course be judicial review of the actions of the police, as ordered by the High Court. The court will decide on the balance between rights of the police under their investigative powers, and the rights of the press with respect to its freedom of expression and public interest in what was published.

The fact that the search was conducted under the authority of the very police officer suspected of and under investigation for financial impropriety is an important factor. Under what conditions and what evidence was presented for such a search warrant to be signed off and who was the judicial officer who gave authority to the warrant? These are questions that have to be answered. Search warrants cannot be granted – or rather, should not be granted – willy-nilly. There must be just cause, and evidence presented, for fundamental rights to be breached. The right to privacy is one such fundamental right.

Of course, we know that some judicial officers (magistrates and judges) merely rubber stamp the requests by police, without conducting due diligence questioning. It is these scenarios where the slippery slope comes into view. Eternal vigilance is demanded from those who live in this society.