EDITORIAL COMMENT: Econet not above the law

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PRESS freedom is a long cherished right in most societies, as such a right is essential in a functioning democracy. This is why it attracts wide-spread support, even from people who dislike intensely how some journalists exercise that right. The law, largely through a long series of precedents, that is decisions in court cases, does not grant an absolute right to behave irresponsibly. Journalists who publish wrong information, or who hurt others without good cause, can be brought before the courts in civil actions and in certain cases can even face criminal charges, such as if they encourage others to commit violent acts.

The rise of online media has created the possibility of new solutions for legal remedies if someone believes they have been badly treated by journalists, as we have seen recently in a provisional High Court order sought by Econet against The Source, an online new agency.

Justice Joseph Musakwa ordered The Source to “delete and expunge” two stories dealing with Steward Bank, which is owned by Econet. We assume that the judge meant exactly what he said, that he wanted these two stories removed from the content issued by the agency, something that is possible with an online agency, which can keep a story available to readers forever, but was never possible with the older print and electronic media, where publication is a one-off event.

The stories had already been published, so the judge was not trying to prevent publication, which would be a major undesirable change in the law, but only to stop continued publication.

This seems a useful legal remedy open to those who feel they have been hurt by an online story that may contain errors and can at least stop being hurt every day that it is still available.

The judgment was also important in that online media seem to fall under the same sort of legal rules that govern older media. The Source wishes to appeal on constitutional grounds and is now waiting for the wheels of justice to turn over that application. So far there is nothing untoward.

Even if the permission for a constitutional appeal is not granted The Source can always seek to appeal to the Supreme Court on other grounds once the order is confirmed. But whichever of three courts has the final say, another precedent on media law will have been set.

But what horrifies us is that Econet have taken a court order to an agency to stop publishing a pair of stories as an excuse to raid The Source to hunt down documents and to examine e-mails.

The only reason for this must be to find who tipped off The Source and who helped The Source develop the story. Econet probably suspect one of their own employees and would like to know who. But their actions are a direct attack on Press and individual freedoms.

The courts do not need any help from Econet to enforce an order. The judges can do this on their own with their considerable powers and these might well involve the Deputy Sheriff making sure that what was ordered was done, in this case stopping continued publication of the stories by making sure they are simply no longer available.

But we cannot conceive that enforcement of such an order can involve a plaintiff ransacking the premises of a defendant for their own reasons totally unconnected with the order.

The abuse of an order by Econet is all the more surprising because that large and highly successful company was founded after successful constitutional challenges involving the right of freedom of speech. The company might be now big and powerful but it is not a law unto itself, as we hope it will soon find out.