Editors condemn Ashin Singh

The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has condemned the abuse of a Witness reporter by a well-known senior magistrate in Pietermaritzburg, Ashin Singh.

It said in a statement that “Sanef notes this is part of a pattern of abuse by the magistrate, of a number of Witness journalists, with particular abuse taking place [on Tuesday]”.

Sanef was responding to an incident at the magistrate’s courts during which Singh swore at the reporter, Sharika Regchand, threatened her family and herself, and also made lewd and mendacious comments about her. Prior to his abuse of the reporter, he had ordered that she be removed from the front of a courtroom, in the middle of a judgment by another magistrate, to the public gallery at the back.

The journalist has laid criminal charges against Singh of crimen injuria and intimidation.

The editor of The Witness, Yves Vanderhaeghen, said that Singh’s conduct is “inexcusable and reprehensible in the extreme. He has no right to abuse journalists in the course of their duties. It is improper and irregular that he should use his official position to intimidate reporters for the simple fact that they have dared to report on cases in which he is himself a party. Our reporting is strictly by the book.”

Singh has prior to this incident threatened to bar the same reporter from cases over which he is presiding. This threat forms the basis of a complaint by The Witness to the Magistrates’ Commission that Singh is abusing his position and preventing journalists from doing their job of reporting on public matters. All journalists are entitled to report on any court proceedings except under specific conditions which are set down in law.

Given this threat, The Witness’s lawyer has further written to the chief magistrate of Pietermaritzburg, Mpho Monyemore, to ask that she ensure the safety of reporters and that they not be impeded, harassed, intimidated or abused by Singh when they cover cases.

Sanef noted in its statement that “Magistrate Singh has a controversial history. He has had numerous complaints laid against him with the Magistrates’ Commission. Most recently he has been involved in a dispute with a prominent KZN businessman convicted of fraud, Visham Panday. Further, he is involved in a dispute with fellow magistrate, Divesh Mootheram. Singh has been unhappy with the way The Witness has portrayed him in these various cases.

“Sanef believes that Singh is abusing his position and using his authority as a senior magistrate to abuse and intimidate reporters in relation to cases in which he himself is a party. Sanef believes this is highly inappropriate and unethical and supports The Witness’s complaint to the Magistrates’ Commission [and the] decision to lodge a criminal case against the magistrate.”

Sanef added further that it “is worried about a number of incidents that have taken place at magistrate’s courts around the country where journalists have been arbitrarily barred from covering cases.

“However, in June Sanef held a constructive meeting with the Magistrates’ Commission to begin to resolve these matters. One proposal was for a directive to be circulated from the commission to all magistrates stating that media representatives should not be prevented from attending court proceedings when performing their jobs, unless there is a legal reason.

“Sanef believes strongly that for our Constitutional rights to freedom of expression and access to information to be safeguarded we need to ensure that journalists have access to the courts at all levels — including importantly at the local magistrate’s courts level. Resolving these matters is a critical priority.”