Saving PigSpotter's bacon

PigSpotter was on the radio again on Monday afternoon. Well, the story about the metro cops wanting to arrest him at least. After listening to the news bulletin on the way home from aftercare, my daughter and I climbed out of the car.
She looked a bit pale, her brows folded inward in knotted confusion.

“Mommy, why do they want to arrest PigSpotter?” she asked about the recently-famous Tweeter, known only as Cliff, who’s been warning motorists about where Jo’burg metro police are speed trapping. “He’s just saying where the hidden camera roads are. Like if I tell Daddy something that I see, then they can arrest me? Why would they do that?”

That, I told her, was a very good question.

Now before you think I’ve gone and indoctrinated my child on the inner workings of some guy’s Twitter account and the rights or wrongs of telling people—some who really could be criminals—about where cops are hiding; or why or why not it’s not very nice to call people pig names; or why people should or shouldn’t be allowed to say what they think, see or feel, let me get this straight: all she did was listen to the news report while she was in the car. She came to the conclusion herself.

She’s not yet seven and she knows where the hidden cameras are around Jo’burg—not a big secret, is it?—and plays a sort of “I spy” with her Dad, shouting out “hidden camera road” as we pass one. Her immediate concern was about herself. Would she be arrested for declaring the whereabouts of hidden cameras?

Defeated justice
But it’s the simplicity of her statement that struck me. It’s basic freedom of speech under threat. After all, how can you arrest someone for telling other people what you have seen? It’s what journalists do every day. And the fact that my primary school child—albeit one raised in a democratic society and not in, say, Maoist China—figured out from a 10 second news bite that not allowing people to say what they think was profoundly disturbing was, well, actually profoundly disturbing. Especially amid the very real talk of a media appeals tribunal and a frightening Protection of Information Bill.

I had to confirm exactly what Pig Spotter was going to be charged with, though. Wayne Minnaar, spokesperson for Johannesburg Metro Police, wouldn’t tell me more than this: “A case has been opened against the suspect and the charges include crimen injuria, defeating justice and defamation,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “There will be no further dialogue entered into with the suspect or with any other party relating to this matter, and criminal proceedings will run its course.”

Defamation. Alright, if you insist. Crimen injuria—essentially another defamation charge, right? OK, maybe. Defeating justice? No way.

I was wrong. The handful of attorneys I spoke with said there was no way any of the charges would stand up in court.

Rashers and rubbish
Eddie Classen, with the criminal litigation firm BDK Attorneys, summed it up.

Classen said that there have actually been quite a few decisions that suggest that our laws don’t even recognise crimen injuria. “To charge people with crimen injuria is the same as charging someone with adultery when that was still a crime,” he told me on Tuesday evening. “It’s impractical to charge someone with it; it’s almost lapsed as a consequence of public policy.”

And defamation? “It’s a civil matter, a claim that one individual can bring against another.” In this case, he asks: “Who is the complainant? Which police officer has PigSpotter insulted?” And besides, he said, the acronym PIG isn’t necessarily even derogatory or referring to an animal; some say this traces back to an 18th century British police outfit or could even stand for Police in Gauteng, although PigSpotter’s tendency to refer to “rashers” and “bacon” might suggest otherwise.

What about defeating the ends of justice?

“To charge someone with an attempt to defeat justice,” Classen said, “one must show that was his intention.”

He explained it like this: take, for example, when a driver flashes their lights to warn oncoming motorists about an upcoming speed trap. Our courts have repeatedly found that doesn’t constitute the offence of defeating the ends of justice, he said.

“If you forewarn someone of a speed trap up ahead, for that to be considered as defeating the ends of justice you have to show that the person who is signalling knows that the person who is being warned is exceeding the speed limit,” he said. Which would be, um, difficult to say the least.

In any case, while we’re on the subject of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department, Classen shared this interesting little nugget: the way in which some officers have conducted themselves in recent years (i.e. claims of bribery and intimidation abound) poses a very poignant question: are the metro police themselves a threat to civil liberties?

Take the popular tactic of randomly pulling cars over, which can be seen all over town.

Said Classen: “The police cannot stop you because they are the police. They can only stop you if they have a reasonable suspicion that you have committed a criminal offence. The simple act of pulling people over to see their licence is absolute rubbish; that’s Nazi-style policing.”

Profoundly disturbed
The upshot? The child appears to understand the basic fundamentals of a democracy better than many of the people running the city—or for that matter the country. After all, the police apparently don’t realise that what they are charging PigSpotter with doesn’t stand a chance in hell of making it through the court system, which is much like the proposed media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill, neither of which in their present states could possibly past constitutional muster. Anyway, at this point I’m not sure I should be proud of my bright child or head back to where I started when she first muttered her wisdom, which was at profoundly disturbed.

At least the public hasn’t lost their marbles on the issue. Eyewitness News reported this week that in a snap survey they found a whopping 92% don’t want PigSpotter arrested, in what appears to be complete validation of his work (that’s if the approximately 20 000 or so plus followers who have signed up to get his alerts since he went global—CNN and BBC picked up the story this week—wasn’t enough) or a wish to adhere to basic freedom of speech.

If the cops do catch him, there’s at least one attorney who will come to his defence.

“We were discussing this over lunch,” said Classen. “Whenever they catch Mr PigSpotter, I will defend him for free to make a point.”

Tanya Pampalone

Tanya Pampalone

Tanya Pampalone is the executive editor of the Mail & Guardian, where she oversees print and digital enterprise and narrative journalism projects including eBooks and special editions, such as the popular end of year and annual religion issues. Tanya occasionally lectures on media ethics and editorial independence at the Sol Plaatjie Institute at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. In 2012, she won South Africa's top journalism award, the Sikuvile, for creative writing and was a finalist in the feature writing category. In 2013, Tanya was selected as the Menell Media Fellow at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy in the United States. Currently, she is on the editorial board of the Menell Media Xchange.Tanya has more than 20 years experience living and working as a writer, columnist and editor for magazines, newspapers and online publications in the United States, the Czech Republic and South Africa. She has a BA in journalism from San Diego State University and a master's in writing from the University of San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Chimurenga's Power Money Sex, Cityscapes, Empire, Food and Home, Los Angeles Reader, Mail & Guardian, Maverick, Newsweek, Prognosis, San Francisco Examiner and, among others. Read more from Tanya Pampalone

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