Journos under siege

Eric Naki

Eric Naki

Three incidents in recent months have raised questions about freedom of expression and how journalists do their work.

The most recent was a week ago when a photographer was arrested by Metro police for doing his job. Lucky Morajane, a Daily Sun photographer, was arrested after he photographed members of the Johannesburg Metro Police while confronting a taxi driver who they accused of driving through red traffic lights. Morajane was travelling in the same taxi.

The paper reported that the driver denied jumping the red traffic lights and the photographer agreed with him.

Morajane said an argument between the unnamed driver and the cops ensued and one of the policemen took out a pepper spray and used it to spray the taximan on his face. The photographer took the picture of the cop while drawing the pepper spray.

The police, who told Morajane that he did not have permission to take the picture, arrested and took him to Johannesburg Central Police Station. He was released an hour later without being charged.

Metro police spokesman Wayne Minnaar confirmed that the photographer should have asked for permission to do his job, otherwise he could be charged with "obstructing officers in carrying out their duties".

In February, Sowetan reporter Mhlaba Memela was arrested by eThekwini Metro cops and charged with "failing to comply with a lawful police instruction" and "resisting arrest".

Memela was taking pictures of a crowd that was looting a furniture shop after a taxi had crashed into it in the Durban CBD. The police arrived and pointed firearms at the looters, trying to stop them from looting.

Only Memela was arrested, though there was a white photographer who was also taking pictures at the scene. He was taken to CR Swart Square police station where he waited for six hours to be charged and released. Memela appeared in court the following day but the case was struck off the roll.

During the same period, trumped-up charges were laid by Oudtshoorn police at a crime scene against freelance journalist Hein Coetzee. They were dropped more than a month and several court appearances later.

Coetzee was detained for hours in a police cell for a crime he did not commit.

He reported in the Kaapse Son about police brutality during a raid against the residents in Dassie Road in Bridgeton township, Oudtshoorn. The police allegedly assaulted the residents and threatened to shoot them.

Are journalists supposed to get permission before they take pictures of police action? Are journalists above the law or free to ride roughshod over other members of society in the performance of their duty?

In all these incidents, if permission was needed at all, could the journalists have risked missing the drama to wait for the police to give permission?

Under apartheid it was common for journalists to be detained and photographers' film spools confiscated and destroyed after taking pictures of police actions. Many journalists suffered from police brutality and were prevented from doing their job under various laws and state of emergencies.

But under the new democratic order, all that has changed. Instances of police action against protesters were captured by many photographers in the recent past without obtaining permission.

Our Constitution's Bill of Rights provides for freedom of expression, which includes press freedom. If photographers and reporters are not allowed to cover police action, there is a danger that this right to press freedom could be violated.

Freedom of expression and media experts say there is no such thing as "obstructing officers in carrying out their duties". They say it is not about riding roughshod over others' rights but it is a question of journalists practising their freedom under the new democracy, unlike under apartheid when the police mentality of "kragdadigheid" thrived against the media.

Jane Duncan, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, and Raymond Louw, chairman of the South African National Editors Forum's (Sanef) media freedom committee, have condemned police action against Morajane and other journalists.

Duncan described it as "rubbish" and "kragdadig" mentality that police inherited from the old SAP against the media.

"The attitude that journalists need to get permission to do their job is backed by the Police Act, which has not been repealed nor amended," says Duncan.

Louw says the police acted improperly because there is no law prohibiting journalists from taking pictures in public.

"It was a public place where the Metro police were performing their duty, and therefore the photographer had all the right to take the pictures without seeking permission. The cops grossly violated his right and the freedom of the media to operate," said Louw.

Louw said the issue of police interference in the work of journalists, especially recent police actions against photographers, would be discussed when the forum meets the police tomorrow.

Mary Papayya, Sanef general secretary, says they have called for disciplinary action against the cops who arrested Memela, Coetzee and Morajane. She criticised the police for not understanding the role of the media.

Papayya said Sanef aimed to have a protocol with the police to ensure that interference in the work of journalists stopped.