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Cell phone jamming drama in South Africa's Parliament: Taking Action

Written by Ferial Haffajee

I may have thought it exciting when younger, but I didn't want to stand at a State of the Nation address holding a Samsung phone aloft and shouting #bringbackthesignal?
Doing so in February with colleagues in the media benches in Parliament was a moment of profound discomfort, especially when the chant was taken up by some members of Parliament in the opposition benches.
And, especially when the ANC benches erupted in an opposing chorus of "ANC. ANC. ANC" which is what the party does when it readies for victory. Or war. It was not easy because the media must be seen and believed to be non-partisan.
The only currency we have is our independence - if we enjoy the privilege of being a fourth estate and therefore enjoy constitutional protection, we must be seen to be dispassionate.
In a young democracy, the media has consistently had to prove its stripes, faced as we have been, with regular accusations of being opposition inclined.
The protest was additionally difficult for me as I know my freedom is owed in large measure to the ANC as is my progress in the world. If it were not for the party's efforts and the Constitution it shepherded, I would probably be a retrenched clothing worker or low-level bank clerk as apartheid's mad architects had planned for people of my colour. So, to have the ANC glaring at us chanting journalists was painful on several personal levels.
I'm also old-fashioned and old enough to hold the National Assembly in august reverence and helping make that caterwaul was necessary but not easy. It was necessary because not to do so would have been to collude in a crude and stupid act of censorship.
The decision to jam the signal to prevent transmission of live reports from parliament's National Assembly had to be opposed. While a Cabinet minister alleges the media colluded with the opposition, in fact the chant was started in the media box because we could not work. It was taken up by the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Front (EFF) benches.
The jamming was but one of a set of egregious efforts to stopper information in February. The live feed was transmitted North Korean style, with clear censoring of the violence when EFF members were ejected. Then, reports suggest the security which hustled and heaved the EFF out of the assembly also attempted to stop journalists speaking to them.
And the Minister of Social Development Bathebile Dlamini threatened the media for our action bringing to four the number of efforts to censor and scupper free expression.
All of these efforts must be opposed, but it's worth noting that they are stupid too. In an era of open information and social media, you have as much chance of stopping information as we have of getting our President to #paybackthemoney.
Later in February, I found myself at the ANC's Luthuli House headquarters on my birthday. The chocolate cake I took along did not help melt the frosty atmosphere.
A few days after the drama at Parliament, I had spoken at the Cape Town Press Club and pressed for South Africans to speak up against censorship. A report had reported I had said "Rise up...", which got the ANC very angry because they read it as an act of insurrection.
The party put out a statement saying I'd crossed a line and so we had agreed to meet in the time-honoured South African tradition of "talking about it".
The ANC officials assembled again complained that South African journalists had aligned with the opposition at the opening of parliament by protesting as we had and by then going to court to get a commitment that signals would not be jammed in future.
Yet had we not protested? In further action, the South African National Editor's Forum (Sanef) together with Primedia, the Right2know (R2K) campaign, Media24 and Open Democracy Advice Centre approached the Cape High Court to seek an order that parliament undertakes that no jamming of mobile signal shall ever happen. In addition,
Sanef also sought an order that Parliament should agree to provide wide angle shots of video coverage of proceedings especially when there was trouble in the House. Failing that, Sanef sought permission for broadcasters to bring their own equipment and cover the proceedings themselves. An attempt to reach agreement out of court failed and the matter was then heard by Judge Elize Steyn. She recorded Parliament's undertaking that the signal jamming should never have happened and it will ensure that it never happens again. Sanef hails this as a victory on signal jamming. The editors' body also called for a meeting with President Jacob Zuma, in the wake of the incident, in February. The meeting, which took place in Pretoria, had the president declare that cell phone jamming should never happen again. "The jamming of the signal was wrong, it is uncalled for and should never happen again," Zuma said.

But while this reassurance has taken place, these actions, such as cell phone jamming, are worrying signs for the future.

A key media debate in South Africa is likely to be an effort to tar the independent media as an opposition media as the State develops a media corps which is aligned to the governing party and which includes the SABC, Independent News and The New Age.
The lesson for me is that you have to immediately stand up to censorship and take decisions that are difficult whether that is protesting in the National Assembly or taking parliament to court.

Ferial Haffajee is City Press editor-in-chief and is a recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) international press freedom award, 2014.

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