Journalists who have exposed deep-rooted corruption in the National Prosecuting Authority, the State Security Agency (SSA), Crime Intelligence and the Hawks are increasingly being targeted by state and private sector spies, according to a report by advocacy group Right2Know (R2K).
On Wednesday, R2K released a report titled Spooked: Surveillance of journalists in SA, focusing on the surveillance of journalists in South Africa as part of an investigation into larger systemic surveillance abuses in the country.
The report is case-study based, focusing on particular examples of surveillance that have been used against journalists, how the surveillance was conducted and who has been implicated as being responsible.
R2K describes the aim of the report as being twofold: to give journalists a clearer picture of the threats which they face daily as they embark on uncovering certain stories (and how to protect themselves and their sources) as well as to get the public to join the campaign to end surveillance abuses.
The report comes at a time when the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) — which is South Africa’s main surveillance law — faces a court challenge by the AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.
AmaBhungane launched this challenge after learning that the SSA had been listening in on private discussions between one of its journalists — Sam Sole — and sources for months.
AmaBhungane told the court RICA failed to protect Sole and that though the Act “serves as the basis for the lawful interception of citizens’ communications”, there are “fundamental flaws in RICA” and “various sections are inconsistent with the Constitution.”
R2K has joined as a friend of the court to support this position.
Athandiwe Saba — a Mail & Guardian journalist — was also spied on by an official of the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) who gained access to her private cell phone records after she investigated the suspended official for corruption.
Former RSR chief executive Nkululeko Poya wanted to know who Saba was speaking to, in order to trace whistle-blowers within the organisation. The records were accessed with a police subpoena claiming that Saba was a suspect in a housebreaking and theft case.
In 2017, R2K released statistics which showed law enforcement agencies are spying on at least 70 000 cell phones each year. R2K obtained this information after approaching telecommunications service providers about how many warrants they received in terms of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act in the years 2015 to 2017.
The report concludes with recommendations including challenging and reforming RICA, making service providers more accountable for the data which they have in their possession and increasing media vigilance.
Read the full report below: