/ 28 August 2007

Network to protest against ‘censored’ protests

The South African Constitution allows for the freedom of expression and for ordinary citizens’ participation in government by raising concerns in the form of petitions and protest marches. However, protests are being “censored” by government authorities, says the Freedom of Expression Network (FXN).

The FXN, an NGO facilitated by the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), has organised a march to protest against what it calls “repression and manipulation of the Regulation of Gatherings Act”.

The network is a nationwide collective of social movements, NGOs and other civil society organisations that seeks to unite such movements and organisations around issues of state repression and criminalisation of dissent.

The FXN National Day of Action is scheduled for Thursday with events in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State.

“Thursday was chosen as Anti-Repression Day in commemoration of the late Teboho Mkhonza who was shot dead at age 17 during police violence at a protest in Harrismith, Ntabazwe, in 2004,” the FXN said in a statement on Tuesday. “Yet whether it is in Sebokeng or Soweto, Mamelodi or Middleburg, Kennedy Road (Durban) or Khayelitsha, people of South Africa are facing greater and greater threats as they attempt to exercise their basic right to speak out.”

“We want to raise awareness and build solidarity against repression and how the Regulation of Gatherings Act has been manipulated in an attempt to silence poor and other marginalised groups,” said FXI head of media Virginia Setshedi.

She said the event follows the strong police presence seen at recent protests, which seems like a means of infringing on people’s right to protest. “We feel that the police abuse their power and manipulate the Act,” she said.

The FXI feels that protests — the only way for people who don’t have any other way of reaching out to the government to speak out — are “censored” by government authorities.

“I can give you a practical example,” said Setshedi. “For instance, when an organisation wants to hold a protest it must give a notice to the metro police within 48 hours of the actual event, and what happens is that the metro police treat the notice as an application for permission.”

According to the Act, an organisation planning a protest must meet the relevant authorities — in this case the metro police — in the specified 48 hours to discuss the logistics of the protest. However, “What then happens at the meetings is that they interrogate and intimidate the members of that organisation and do not discuss the logistics.”

On Thursday, the FXN event in the Western Cape will take the form of a march to Parliament to hand over a memorandum to Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula, expressing the network’s concerns over acts of police repression in the Western Cape.

“We would like for the minister to educate the police about the Regulation of Gatherings Act, because I don’t think the police don’t know enough about the correct protocol as far as protests are concerned,” said Setshedi.

The day’s events in KwaZulu-Natal will also focus on police repression before delivering a memorandum to a local police station outlining grievances concerning police brutality, particularly against shack dwellers.

“There was an event in February 2006 where a group of shack dwellers gave notice for a march about service delivery in KwaZulu-Natal and they didn’t get any feedback. They continued with it anyway, whereupon they were taken to the high court on the very same day,” said Setshedi.

The Free State event will focus on the commemoration of the death of Mkhonza. In Gauteng, protesters will march from the FXI offices in Braamfontein to the Gauteng legislature to deliver a memorandum to provincial minister of community safety Firoz Cachalia.

The FXN said the events are a way of fighting for freedom of expression, and that South Africans should stand together against continuing harassment and intimidation of civil society.