Saving our journos from jail

As a rookie reporter in the Seventies, I snapped some shots of pollution billowing out of the Modderfontein dynamite factory. A security guard gave me a blast and whipped me off to HQ where my film was confiscated.

Invited soon after to a ”watch your step, son” lunch, AECI management told me: ”We’ve developed your pictures — they weren’t very good anyway.”

And so went one story that wasn’t going to see the light of day.

That experience — and worse — is all too common. Just last week, the Sowetan‘s Mhlaba Memela was dragged off to police cells for taking pictures of looting. The police reportedly claimed he had obstructed the course of justice, failed to comply with their instructions, incited a crowd and resisted arrest.

A magistrate soon after threw the case out, but couldn’t reverse the history of Memela having suffered an intimidating and wholly unnecessary ordeal.

A similar misfortune last year befell Stephen Penney, photojournalist for Grahamstown’s Grocott’s Mail. He was unceremoniously locked up after he took pictures of a traffic accident.

It’s not just the unpleasantness for the journo that is the problem when such things happen, but also the denial of the public’s right to know. The story becomes at best what happened to the press, not what the journalist was trying to report.

No one knows if the removal of the correspondent in these cases served to enable the police to engage in unprofessional conduct out of public gaze.

Discussing these issues recently, a member of the South African National Editors’ Forum volunteered that he had seen official police guidelines issued to members of the force instructing them on how to deal with the press.

One principle outlined in these was that cops were not entitled to confiscate photographers’ film. Unfortunately, said the editor, it did not seem that such points had been well communicated within the force.

The irony, he added, was that he was not allowed to obtain a copy of the guidelines.

What is clearly needed is an explicit deal between the media and police that sets out detailed protocols for their relationship in the field.

We could profitably draw on experience from the United States. There, in 1999, a bevy of New York newspapers drafted a civic action against then mayor Rudolf Giuliani and his police commissioner. They accused the authorities of overseeing illegitimate denial of access to crime, fire and accident scenes, and of interfering with journalists’ ability to report the news.

They recalled earlier police guidelines that explicitly stated their objective as being ”to cooperate with media representatives by not interfering or allowing others to interfere with media personnel acting in their news-gathering capacity”.

The guidelines also cautioned members of the police that ”intentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or harassing the photographer constitutes censorship”. Another aspect was that the media should be given access as close to the action as possible with a clear line of sight.

The New York media cited numerous cases where these provisions had been violated.

In response to the pressure, the New York city chiefs agreed to reaffirm their adherence to the guidelines, and to educate members of the police. They also provided 24-hour contact details for complaints to be reported.

There was even a commitment for police to stop others from interfering with journalists, and for disciplinary proceedings to be instituted against wayward officers.

The case stands as a fine example of what can be done, with good will on each side.

If police respect the right of journalists to do their job, and if journalists accept that there are occasions when access can be curtailed, the two sides can meet each other’s — and the public’s — varied interests.

Journalists need to avoid obstructing police actions or disturbing the integrity of evidence. They should stay out of the way of rescue personnel and be sensitive about privacy issues.

On their side, police should acknowledge that journalists meet the public’s right to know what’s happening — which includes knowledge whether members of the force are behaving in a professional and accountable manner.

South Africa needs a protocol like that in New York — with just one updated proviso. Journalistic rights and responsibilities at incidents should also be extended to bloggers and citizen journalists, especially when it is them, and not the professional reporters, who happen to be on the spot.

That dispensation would give us a recipe for maximum transparency and a free flow of information — and a way to avoid run-ins with officials and journalists ending up in jail.

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