The police said on Monday they were “surprised” by the Sunday Independent‘s allegations that a reporter had been placed under surveillance by the South African Police Service Crime Intelligence unit.
Police spokesperson Sally de Beer said the police had previously invited the publication to register a formal complaint so they could investigate the claim but this had not been done.
“If the Sunday Independent takes this so-called ‘intimidation’ seriously, they would have opened a case against the individuals involved, or at the very least, filed a direct complaint with police management,” said De Beer in a statement that did not confirm or deny the allegation.
Following an appearance on The Justice Factor, where editor Makhuru Sefara alluded to harassment by the police either to himself or his staff, the office of the state attorney wrote to the newspaper’s lawyers.
The state attorney’s office said it sounded like a criminal matter and that they should lay a formal complaint with the police, but they have not, said De Beer, explaining that that is why the latest report surprised them.
Complaint could be laid with Inspector General
However, Sefara told South African Press Association (Sapa) they would not be asking the police to investigate, opting rather to approach the Inspector General for Intelligence on the matter.
“Our attitude is that if we are complaining against the police, we can’t be going to them to say they must investigate themselves,” he said.
“The complaint relates to intelligence matters and it’s only appropriate that an organ of state — in terms of the Constitution — that is empowered to look into matters of that nature should be the one that [investigates].”
The publication reported on December 19 that journalist Gcwalisile Khanyile became aware that she had became placed under surveillance after the South Gauteng High Court granted an order preventing further publication of corruption allegations contained in a story she wrote earlier.
In the meantime, according to the latest report, Khanyile “discovered that agents had been assigned to follow her and that her cellphone had been tapped”.
Khanyile’s relatives and a friend in Gauteng received calls allegedly from intelligence agents asking for personal information on her.
De Beer called the article “ambush journalism at its worst” because they had only been offered a chance to comment in a “vague” SMS sent late on Saturday night.
She said the police would be “very interested” to know how the newspaper found out that Khanyile was being followed.
Sefara told Sapa they had been tipped off about this by “people in crime intelligence”.
In the newspaper report, said they had information showing this, and that operatives had been instructed to befriend their reporters “with a view to infiltrating our — and other — newsrooms across the country”.
An unnamed reporter at the Star was allegedly approached by a known intelligence officer “with promises of money and exclusive stories in return for her to work as a spy for the cops”, the report continued.
De Beer also questioned why the publication was only now saying it wanted to appoint a bodyguard for the reporter.
Sefara said they were considering this, but believed that members of the police would not do anything to harm her.
There had been a talk at the newspaper about the matter, but he did not believe any of the other reporters had agreed to the alleged offer by police.
“We just spoke to them briefly about what happened in terms of ethics … they know that is not allowed.”
National Press Club chairperson Yusuf Abramjee called for an urgent investigation into the newspaper’s claim.
During the apartheid era it was not uncommon for some reporters to be paid by security forces to spy on their colleagues or pass on information gleaned from sources.
Sanef supports paper
The South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) said that it “feared” government had embarked on a campaign to intimidate the media.
It said it supported the Sunday Independent in its intention to ask the Inspector General of Intelligence to investigate the issue.
“If the allegations are true, Sanef believes the police abused their powers and resorted to unacceptable behaviour,” said Sanef chairperson Mondli Makhanya. — Sapa