Assault sparks journalists’ boycott

Harassed: Bloomberg journalist Sam Mkokeli (above centre) was forcibly removed from the Nasrec security area by police after he complained about the poor treatment of journalists at the conference.

Harassed: Bloomberg journalist Sam Mkokeli (above centre) was forcibly removed from the Nasrec security area by police after he complained about the poor treatment of journalists at the conference.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s first media appearance as ANC president was boycotted by journalists on Tuesday in protest over Bloomberg journalist Sam Mkokeli being thrown out of the ANC’s elective conference.

He was forcibly removed from inside the Nasrec security cordon after he complained about the poor treatment of journalists.

His colleagues described it as an assault and it unleashed an avalanche of pent-up complaints by the many journalists covering the ANC’s elective conference, where the media coverage has been more restricted than at any ANC event since 1994.

One journalist said his prosthetic leg had come loose after he was pushed by security guards who would not listen when he explained why he could not move as quickly as they wanted him to.

Several women reported inappropriate touching when guards supposedly reached out to check the badges displayed on lanyards. Two journalists said they had been warned that their accreditation would be removed for speaking to ANC delegates. One journalist was threatened with eviction for walking around the plenary venue in search of strong cellphone signal and others had to beg marshals for escorts to be allowed to go to the bathroom.

On Tuesday, journalists were left waiting for 40 minutes to cross a security barrier built to separate them from delegates to reach the venue where they had been invited to cover a walkabout by Ramaphosa.

Security guards initially insisted that, instead of walking a few hundred metres, journalists should travel several kilometres around the outside of the Nasrec venue so that they wouldn’t come into contact with delegates.

After waiting for a shuttle to arrive, Mkokeli held a meeting with journalists and proposed that the walkabout be boycotted because of how long journalists had been made to wait for briefings at the conference.
All the journalists agreed with the proposal.

Mkokeli is the chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum’s (Sanef’s) subcommittee on media freedom.

In the face of the boycott, journalists were allowed through the security barrier — with an escort — but not before a camera caught one security official explaining: “We don’t know demo-crazy, we just know security. If you go out of our way, you are just in our sights.”

After the walkabout, Ramaphosa was due to make a five-minute, no-questions stop for impromptu remarks to the media. But he had not arrived after an hour and the journalists were kept corralled in the sun and told they could not leave without an escort.

Mkokeli again raised a complaint about the way journalists had been treated at the conference, which is when the security members removed his accreditation and forcefully evicted him from Nasrec.

Shoeshoe Qhu, a journalist from Kaya FM, recorded the incident, during which a plainclothes police officer, later identified by News24 as police commander Lieutenant General Tankiso Moshoeshoe, manhandled Mkokeli while Mkokeli kept his hands in the air.

When told his actions amounted to assault, Moshoeshoe told other journalists that Mkokeli should then “open a case”.

During the incident, a uniformed officer briefly attempted to cover two cameras with his hand simultaneously to prevent the incident being filmed.

Mkokeli later said the approach to journalists had been determined by the ANC before the conference had begun.

“It started with the fence, as if we are barbarians to be kept outside because, if we talk to delegates, we may interfere with their election or with policy,” he said. “That is a new thing.”

The new approach also extended to the ANC calling the shots on what parts of its conference proceedings independent broadcasters were allowed to show.

As has become standard practice, the ANC provided broadcasters with a feed from its own cameras inside its plenary hall, produced by its own staff. That feed was supposed to be a back-up to their own cameras. But when satellite station eNCA arrived on Friday with the two cameras it had been told it would be allowed to set up in the space, it was turned away.

“Pool feed arrangements are not a new thing,” said eNCA editor-in-chief Mapi Mhlangu, “but in the past we were allowed to bring a minimum of two of our own cameras in. It was rather disturbing that, in this conference, at the last hour, they said we can no longer have that.”

The lack of independent cameras meant ANC production managers decided what would be shown live and could pull the plug if proceedings turned rowdy.

Sanef leaders held an emergency meeting with the ANC’s communication team after the Mkokeli incident.

“There was an apology that we received, which was quite important to us because they have said that they do not want to make our jobs difficult; there are restrictions that they have but they are trying to work around them as best as possible,” said Sanef chairperson Mahlatse Mahlase.

“They have also raised, of course, that there has also been incidences where journalists have breached security and obviously we would condemn that as Sanef.”

In one case earlier in the week, the ANC complained that broadcasters had continued to carry a live feed after its plenary had gone into closed session. It learned about that when the eNCA alerted it to the fact that it was still supplying its live feed to the broadcasters.

PowerFM host Iman Rappetti, who was there when Mkokeli was evicted, said the media had been managed by the ANC every step of the way.

“We’re coming into their space and we’re playing by their rules, whether we like it or not, but this is a step beyond that, beyond what is acceptable.”

The aggression and tight management of the media reflected the levels of paranoia within the party, she said.

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