Media houses to go to court over signal jamming

South African media houses will go to court to prevent any future attempts to unlawfully block communication signals during parliamentary sessions. (David Harrison, M&G)

South African media houses will go to court to prevent any future attempts to unlawfully block communication signals during parliamentary sessions. (David Harrison, M&G)

South African media houses will urgently seek a court order preventing security agencies from blocking communication signals to interfere with reporting as happened in Parliament this week, the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) said on Saturday.

“We will approach the courts to prevent any future attempts by state security agencies from unlawfully blocking communication signals aimed at interfering with journalists’ constitutionally protected rights and freedoms,” Sanef said after a council meeting in Cape Town. They would also ask the courts to compel Parliament to allow broadcast media to install their own cameras in the legislature. 

This comes after cellphone signals were blocked in the National Assembly ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address on Thursday. 

The editors’ forum said this was an attempt to prevent journalists from telling the nation the full story of how the opening of Parliament descended into pandemonium as security officials were sent into the chamber to remove the MPs of the Economic Freedom Fighters. 

Sanef chairman Mpumelelo Mkhabela said the signal blackout should therefore not be seen merely as a sign of tension between government and the media, but rather as a sad commentary on the state of South Africa’s democracy. “This is a sign that the quality of our democracy could be in decline.” 

He said the legal relief would be sought in terms of the Constitution. “We think it is a winnable case because the constitutional principles are very clear. The principles of openness, of transparency, of accountability are the principles that are entrenched in the Constitution and Parliament is enjoined by the Constitution to observe those principles.” 

Council member Moshoeshoe Monare added that a parliamentary policy to train cameras on the Speaker when there was a disturbance in the chamber, as was the case when security clashed with EFF MPs, and defended in a letter from the Speaker to Sanef on Friday, ran contrary to these principles. “Our Constitution is clear regarding Parliament as an open forum. If you can remember even the word National Assembly comes from the Roman times where people would actually attend all the proceedings.” 

Sanef said consultations with lawyers were at an advanced stage, and it hoped that it would secure the sought relief from the courts in time for the debate on the state of the nation address which begins on Tuesday. “We have to do it as quickly as possible because in the next few days there will be very important debates in Parliament,” Mkhabela said. 

Sanef also plans to challenge the refusal of the Speaker’s office to give the media unedited footage of proceedings in Parliament and to demand a meeting with Speaker Baleka Mbete and Zuma to discuss Thursday’s events. 

Ahead of the president’s address, journalists launched an unprecedented protest in the press gallery to demand that the signal be restored. The call was taken up by opposition MPs who rose on points of order to denounce the blockout as an attack on freedom of expression. 

Adriaan Basson, the chairperson of Sanef’s media freedom subcommittee, said parliamentary officials had appeared unaware of the problem, suggesting that the order to block network coverage had come from government instead. “On the role of the executive what is particularly upsetting for Sanef is the suspicion that it wasn’t a decision by Parliament to install signal scramblers in the House, but actually of the state security agency. 

“As head of the executive President Zuma is ultimately accountable for the actions of the executive.” – Sapa

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