Cops vs photographers: What's wrong with this picture?
While demonstrators have been slammed for raining rocks onto journalists outside Luthuli House in Johannesburg this week, photographers say it is usually the police who stop them from taking pictures.
Protesters were slammed for attacking journalists during a demonstration in support of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema at his disciplinary hearing. Members of the media were pelted with rocks and glass bottles, while a broadcaster’s van was vandalised and damaged.
The M&G spoke to photographers from South African newspapers about the difficulties they face while trying to do their jobs: being accosted by police, assaulted or thrown in jail for taking pictures.
But the police say these isolated incidents have been blown out of proportion by the press.
Eleven years ago, Times photographer Halden Krog would rush with colleagues from crime scene to crime scene, photographing up to four incidents a day. Police would invite him to the scene and gave him a chance to wander around getting shots.
But since 2004 things have changed, he says.
“Now, if I get a call-out from the police once a year, that’s a lot.”
Krog says “sometimes the hassle of getting onto the scene is not worth the shot”. He thinks police don’t want crimes reported in the press “so they can ‘jippo’ the crime stats”.
“It is a theory, but prove me wrong,” he challenges.
National police spokesperson Vish Naidoo says while “he has sympathy for some photographers who experience problems, police officers have to protect the crime scene and the chain of evidence that is needed to prosecute suspects”.
He says he was one of the police officers who used to invite the press to crime scenes in the late Nineties but realised that it was having a negative effect on investigations.
The police are trained not to be antagonistic to media “but there are over 200 000 members of the police”, Naidoo adds, without elaborating.
The spokesperson for the police ministry, Zweli Mnisi, also says it is the police’s job to teach new recruits that a journalist at a crime scene is not an enemy. Some police do perceive them as such, he admits, or are worried that the photos taken will paint them in a bad light.
But, he adds, the “media also needs to educate journalists about respecting crime scenes and staying behind the cordoned-off area, even if they want the exclusive shot”.
According to police standing order regulations on media reporting, press photographers are allowed to take pictures of crime scenes, as long as they remain outside the cordoned-off area and do not interfere with evidence.
Star photographer Chris Collingridge is scathing of cops’ treatment of media members, who he says “spend more time getting rid of press photographers at crime scenes than investigating the crimes”.
A few years ago, Collingridge says, he was roughed up by a police officer. He was arrested, handcuffed and intimidated, and was then locked behind bars for three hours.
His crime: Writing down the number plate of a car in which cops had put confiscated photographic equipment taken from his colleague, who had also been bundled into the car.
Collingridge’s colleague had been detained in the car after taking pictures of a spat between plain clothes policemen and metro cops over the police’s choice to double park and ignore road rules.
Collingridge says he feels someone high up “has said police must not tolerate the media. They have been told ‘don’t let them see anything’.”
Last year, M&G photojournalist Oupa Nkosi was kept in a car by security guards with a fellow journalist for trying to take photos of the president’s house in Forest Town, Johannesburg.
M&G photojournalist Lisa Skinner was also prevented by a police officer from taking photos of a house in Johannesburg in which Kgalema Mothlante’s girlfriend was believed to be staying.
He wouldn’t let her leave the scene either, telling her she had broken the law. But Skinner pointed out that she was legally allowed to photograph the front of house because it was visible from the street. The policeman disagreed. She told him about an incident in which she had been shot at by security guards and he told her: “You are lucky you weren’t shot here”.
She says throughout the incident the officer was always courteous and polite, but this is not usually the case. In most interactions with the police, Skinner says, she feels like she is being threatened.
What do police regulations say?
According to regulations governing the way policemen should communicate with the media, members of the force must always treat the media with courtesy.
“A member must treat all media representatives with courtesy, dignity and respect even when provoked, and promote ethical communication with the media,” the orders stipulate. “A media representative may under no circumstances be verbally or physically abused and cameras or other equipment may not be seized unless such a camera or equipment may be seized as an exhibit in terms of any law. Under no circumstances whatsoever may a member wilfully damage the camera, film, recording or other equipment of a media representative.”
The regulations also say that “the [police] service is an open and transparent organisation and the media may approach any member for information”.
Experts say photographers are generally allowed to take photos in public places unless they are near a national key point. This is a government building, port or military structure that the government has deemed a key point in the interests of national security.
But Nkosi says police always “have to have the last word” when photographers get into an argument with them about their legal right to take photos in public spaces.
“We have to argue with them and explain we are only doing our job”, adds Nkosi.
Skinner says when explaining the law that allows her to take pictures in public spaces, police usually retort something along the lines of: “I am a policeman, how would you know the law better than I do?”
Skinner says she thinks most policemen will abuse their power if they need to, in order to stop her taking pictures.
Raymond Louw, the acting chair on media freedom at the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), says the forum has approached National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele and Gauteng Police Commissioner Mzwandile Petros about the police’s attitude to journalists on many occasions. But not enough has been done to stop police harassment of media, he says.
Naidoo disagrees. “We do share a fantastic relationship with the majority of media. But perhaps we need to strengthen our relationship with photographers, as our interaction with them is far more limited than with writers,” he added.
Louw says media houses need to take action. There is nothing like the “learning curve” for having to pay damages for broken equipment, he added.
“Unless media houses punish the police for assaulting or preventing journalists from reporting on stories, the behaviour will increase. Media owners need to show the police they can’t stop the press from carrying out its duties” says Louw.