South Africa is synonymous with crime in the eyes of many–as evidenced by the recent mugging of a TV crew live on camera–but for the press, a more sinister threat to freedom lies in the growing number of cases where it is the police, in flagrant denial of their orders, who intimidate and threaten journalists, forcing them to delete photographs of police on the job.
The latest incident took place on a street outside the parliamentary precinct in Cape Town on March 11, a few hours before President Jacob Zuma was due to answer questions from members of Parliament (MPs) in response to his state of the nation address given a month earlier.
A parliamentary reporter at Media24 newspapers, Jan Gerber, told CPJ that he was outside the precinct when he saw a group of men gathered near the offices of the police VIP Protection Unit. The unit is responsible for the protection of the president, his deputy, cabinet ministers, and provincial ministers. Gerber said the men were dressed in their usual plainclothes: white shirts and black trousers, the same dress code of security officers who were called into the national assembly controversially on February 12 during the annual opening of Parliament.
Events on February 12 included the violent removal of opposition MPs from the house by security officials because they were disrupting the president’s state of the nation address (SONA) and the jamming of cellphone signals, which journalists and opposition MPs protested until service was restored. The events provoked a burst of outrage on social media under the hashtag #SONA2015 as well as reams of critical editorial copy questioning what was happening to the country’s 20-year-old democracy. Editors condemned the fact that the official television feed from the national assembly stayed focused on the speaker of Parliament whilst pandemonium reigned in the house. The reality of what was happening in the chamber was captured on cellphones by journalists in the press gallery.
It was against this backdrop that the group of security guards outside Parliament caught Gerber’s eye, he told CPJ. “They were wearing white shirts and they were standing under the police flag, so I took the picture,” Gerber told CPJ.
“Two of them crossed the road to ask me why I was taking photographs, then three others came over and tried to grab my camera. I resisted.
They pushed me down and tried to take me into their offices. I refused, and they told me to delete my photographs, which I did. Then they let me go.”
Gerber said Media24 staffers were able to recover some of the photographs from the memory card. These were used the next day in one of Media24’s titles, the daily, Afrikaans-language Die Burger. Gerber told CPJ he had laid charges of assault and intimidation with the South African police on March 16 and the case has been referred to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.
On January 31, a reporter with the community radio station Radio Islam in Johannesburg, Faizel Patel, was forced to delete his photographs by police after he took pictures of a peaceful protest at a shopping center in Lenasia, a suburb south of Johannesburg, news reports said.
“I told them I have a right to take photographs in terms of Standing Order 156,” Patel told CPJ, “but the police officer started swearing at me and told me to leave.”
Standing Order 156 is a 27-page-long order that governs the South Africa Police Service’s (SAPS) interaction with the media. It states that “a media representative may not be prohibited from taking photographs or making visual recordings” of the police, and that a journalist whose conduct may disturb evidence or obstruct the police from performing their duties may be “courteously requested to leave the crime scene” and if they refuse they must be “escorted out of the restricted area.”
The order specifies that “under no circumstances” may a representative of the media “be verbally or physically abused and cameras or other equipment may not be seized unless such camera or equipment may be seized as an exhibit in terms of any law. Under no circumstances whatsoever, may a member willfully damage the camera, film, recording or other equipment of a media representative.”
Patel said the saga ended when he accompanied police to the station, where a senior officer ordered his press card returned to him. “I didn’t want to press charges, I was just flabbergasted that the guy swore at me for doing my job and I wanted an apology. The head of the tactical unit said he didn’t know about Standing Order 156.” All the officers involved apologized to Patel, he said.
In another incident on January 22, three police officers in Soweto, south of Johannesburg, forced Mpho Raborife, a reporter with the South Africa Press Association (SAPA), to delete photos from her cellphone, according to news reports.
Raborife said she was driving past a Somali-owned shop when she saw three police vehicles parked outside and two men loading items, including packs of cold drinks, into a white van, according to news reports. She drove off but a police vehicle followed her and flagged her down. An officer watched over her shoulder as she deleted the pictures, the same news reports said.
CPJ sent repeated emails and phone messages to the national police spokesperson asking for a response to these three incidents, but received no reply.
The South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) condemned the police’s actions against Raborife in a statement and noted that senior police officers, including the national commissioner of police, had promised that “such illegal behavior” would end.
In March 2014, following a meeting with police communications officers led by the national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega, the SAPS and Sanef issued a joint statement that agreed that a high-level committee of police and editors would be established to improve police-media relations.
Despite this agreement, barely a month later, in the run-up to the April 2014 national elections, a bodyguard of President Jacob Zuma forced a journalist with privately owned eNCA television channel, Nickolaus Bauer, to delete photos from his cellphone that showed provincial traffic police carrying t-shirts supporting the ruling African National Congress in one of their vehicles, news reports said. Police issued a statement acknowledging the allegation and promised to investigate the matter.
In the past 24 months Sanef has issued at least seven statements protesting police intimidation of journalists, which included ordering reporters to delete photographs. The most recent referred to the incident outside parliament involving Jan Gerber.
Chairperson of media freedom at Sanef and editor of the privately-owned daily Beeld newspaper Adriaan Basson told CPJ that he believed the heavy-handed behavior of police was linked to the “increasing militarization” of the SAPS which started about five years ago.
In July 2009, the then-new police commissioner Bheki Cele said he wanted the law changed to allow SAPS members to “shoot to kill.” Basson said this has resulted in the killing of protesters and innocent bystanders.
In June 2011 the police said no such order had ever been given, but police brutality in South Africa has risen by more than 300 percent in the past decade, according to research cited in news reports.
A year ago, police shot dead a freelance community-based photographer, according to CPJ research, and an official commission of inquiry still has to deliver its report into the police shooting of striking miners at Marikana in the North-West Province in August 2012 in which 34 protesters were killed.
“It isn’t crazy to assume that police don’t want the media to capture and showcase these deeds,” which prompts them to turn on journalists, Basson told CPJ. He said Sanef had a “direct line” to the office of the national police commissioner and that the head of communications at SAPS was sympathetic to the plight of journalists, but this attitude did not always filter down to station level where the abuses occur.
“We hope this will be communicated thoroughly to the entire service,” he said. “It is dangerous for a democracy when a police service starts to view itself as above the law.”
Sue Valentine, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, has worked as a journalist in print and radio in South Africa since the late 1980s, including at The Star newspaper in Johannesburg and as the executive producer of a national daily current affairs radio show on the SABC, South Africa’s public broadcaster.