The National Lotteries Commission (NLC) says it intends to lay criminal charges against freelance journalist Raymond Joseph and GroundUp over an ongoing investigation into alleged fraud and corruption involving multimillion-rand Lottery grants.

The threats were made in two separate letters from the NLC’s lawyers, Malatji and Co, which were received by e-mail on Thursday and Saturday, says a GroundUp report on the matter.

The NLC also demanded that GroundUp remove 16 stories from its website, many of which exposed incompetence and probable corruption involving multimillion-rand Lottery-funded projects.

In the initial letter Malatji said that the NLC was ‘considering’ laying criminal charges. But in a follow-up letter, the lawyers said: ‘The NLC intends to lay criminal charges against Joseph and GroundUp for the contravention of Regulation 8.’

The regulation of the Lotteries Act quoted by the lawyers deals specifically with members of the NLC’s distributing agencies.

Among other things, the regulation makes it an offence for a distributing agency to reveal details of both grant applications and awarded grants.

Members of the distributing agencies are appointed by the Minister of Trade & Industry.

Neither GroundUp nor Joseph are ‘distributing agencies’, the report points out, adding the NLC has also, in part, used this same section of the Act to deny several Promotion of Access to Information Act applications requesting details of Lottery-funded projects.

The NLC’s lawyers have listed 17 stories that they say contravene the law.

Corruption Watch Executive Director David Lewis expressed concern about the development. He said: ‘Corruption Watch notes with alarm the intimidation techniques that are being used by the NLC against journalist Raymond Joseph and the news outlet GroundUp. The NLC is relying on a regulation to the Lotteries Act that prohibits the disclosure of grant information and, given the important place the rights to freedom of expression and access to information play in our constitutional system, Corruption Watch is concerned that this regulation – or its implementation by the NLC – may be unconstitutional.’

Charl du Plessis, a lawyer with media law firm Willem de Klerk Attorneys, said: ‘The NLC’s conduct … raises question marks about its commitment to the constitutional values of openness, transparency and accountability. For more than a year, GroundUp and the media in general, have been reporting about allegations involving the flagrant misuse of lottery grant money, which is meant to go to worthy causes.’

But rather than that, the NLC was relying on ‘secondary legislation’, namely a regulation promulgated by a Minister, in what seems to be an attempt to silence journalists and sweep these matters under the rug.

Full GroundUp report