Protesters use the media, but they and the police turn on journalists

The signal jamming at the State of the Nation 2015 was a violation of the right of the public to be fully informed of proceedings in the House. Signal jamming is unlawful, ruled the Supreme Court of Appeal. (David Harrison)

The signal jamming at the State of the Nation 2015 was a violation of the right of the public to be fully informed of proceedings in the House. Signal jamming is unlawful, ruled the Supreme Court of Appeal. (David Harrison)

Attacks on journalists during protests are increasing and getting more violent every year.

Both physical and ideological, they come from several sources: police, government and ruling party, the protesters and now private security at the universities.

Service delivery protests have been in full force more or less since the fall of apartheid. The protesters use violence to attract the media and so grab the attention of government to their plight. But they also turn on the media.

There have been incidents of violence by police and private security firms brought in by universities against journalists during the ongoing #FeesMustFall protests.

And students launch ideological attacks on the media, as witnessed at a recent meeting in Johannesburg of academics, parents and residents. One student raged at the media for only being there for “the fire” [arson attacks] and damage to property but not for the factors that have led to the protests. These included hungry students sleeping in libraries because they can’t afford accommodation, exorbitant rentals in Hillbrow, unemployed parents who can’t feed their children or give them funds for registration, let alone books, and the general feeling of alienation.

The bleat from the left wing is that the media is neoliberal, bourgeois, profit-driven, not interested in covering rural areas and ghoulish about arson and destruction of property at the two “elites”, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town.

Whatever the merits or demerits of these arguments, nonetheless, no student has physically attacked the media during these student protests – so far. May it stay that way.

The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has, for a few years now, said that research must be done on why service delivery protesters attack journalists: they grab cameras, sometimes even stone and assault reporters who are doing their jobs. But there is no funding to devote to such a research project. Sanef also said that perhaps it is necessary to sit down with people and explain what reporters do and why – their function in a democracy.

Some journalists say that when they get to know activists before the protests start they are welcomed by residents and even protected during any violence. But what resources do depleted staff newsrooms have today to afford this “luxury” of sending out reporters to get to know the people?

What we do know from reporters on the ground is that protesters incorrectly believe the footage could be used against them in courts. They don’t know that journalists don’t hand over footage to the authorities.

Hence, photographers and television broadcast journalists are most vulnerable, compared with, say, a print journalist who displays just pen and notebook.

The number of photographers who have had their cameras grabbed and their pictures destroyed grows higher each year and the culprits include the police. Why police do this is inexplicable, except to speculate they are ignorant about how to handle journalists: you don’t handle them.

Meanwhile, last week a major victory for media freedom of expression and for the public’s right to know occurred when Sanef, Primedia and civil society organisations won their appeal in the Supreme Court of Appeal to declare the censoring of the commotion at the opening of Parliament in February 2015 as unconstitutional. Remember the signal jamming when Economic Freedom Fighters members were assaulted? Journalists could not get the word out to the public. Broadcasters were instructed that they could show only the face of the speaker when the EFF members were frog-marched out of Parliament by hefty body guards.

The winning argument was that this was a violation of the right of the public to be fully informed of proceedings in the House. Signal jamming was unlawful.

As journalists get beaten up and their camera material destroyed, there could be another showdown looming and a court ruling that may stipulate that police are unlawful in their assaults.

What is also interesting is that those who have access to the media and to the courts can gain such victories. But what about someone like Michael Tshele, a freelance photographer who worked for Leseding News and Kormorant, who was shot dead by police in January 2014?

Tshele was taking pictures of broken water pipes in Motluhung, Brits, in North West during service delivery protests. “He only had a camera,” activist Solly Setlale said in 2014. “There was no stone in his hand. The only threat he posed was that his camera was recording evidence of what the police were doing.”

His death went by quietly.

Now, in October 2016, as the #FeesMustFall movement splits into different factions according to divergent tactics as well as who leads and who has power, the message is: don’t rage against the media, rather tell them your stories.

Surely fire and brimstone cannot be the only way to attract attention. Maybe, as some research shows, violence is now embedded in our protest culture. This lacks imagination. Violence against journalists is getting out of hand. As for protesters who complain about the “bourgeois media”: Are they contacting journalists with their stories before the violence happens?

Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and chairperson of the ethics and diversity subcommittee at Sanef. These views are her own

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