'Blue light' probe: Media wars, conspiracy theory, and the incredible vanishing task team
A story in The Times about blue-light hijackers has escalated into a three-way catfight between the Gauteng provincial commissioner of police, the paper that published the story – and Radio 702. The police have rubbished the story, and angry words are flying between the two media organisations. What on earth is going on? By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
On Monday, the Times published a story saying that a task team set up to investigate a spate of “blue light” robberies and hijackings had inexplicably been shut down. The team members came from various flying squad and dog units, according to the story. But Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros denied that such a task team had existed in the first place.
The Times said in its original report: “Members of the team of 40 highly experienced, hand-picked officers were told by their commanders between Tuesday and Thursday last week to stop all investigations into the syndicates immediately.
“The officers were told to hand in all the information that they had gathered during their three-week investigation – after hearing on Monday last week that their operation had been extended for two months.
“It is not known who gave the original order to end the team's investigations,” the Times said.
Petros was given an opportunity to respond to the article and he was quoted as saying that such units were formed and disbanded all the time, depending on the need on the ground.
However, Petros was then invited onto Radio 702 on Wednesday, where he said that he had been misquoted. He wasn’t, in fact, affirming the existence of this task team. Uniformed police officers are never assigned to such teams, the commissioner said.
"There has never been a task team. We have been doing more patrols ... deploying more vehicles. We did not assign any tasks to the dog units and flying squads,” Petros said to Robbie on 702.
Later, the Times reporter who wrote the story, Graeme Hosken, came onto the same show to say that he absolutely stood by his story.
According to Hosken, the people who had been assigned to the task team originally spoke to him and said that they suspected that the team was being pulled because of its incredible success. Its members have killed two hijackers, arrested 38 and recovered 34 hijacked vehicles, according to the story.
In May, Major-General Phumzo Gela (then acting as provincial commissioner in Petros’ absence) called a press conference to announce that hijackers were using blue lights and other police equipment to stop and hijack people. He said that they thought that cops were involved too, and an investigation would be made.
The Times alleges that Gela then called upon various dog units and flying squad units to supply officers for the task team.
Petros said to the Daily Maverick that this version of events was absolutely wrong. He said that when he was first contacted by Hosken, he called Gela to inquire as to what had happened in his absence. The major-general then denied that uniformed police had been seconded to the task team, and they told Hosken so.
“The journalist called me on Monday and I said that there is no such a task team,” Petros said. “Then the story came out on Tuesday, and I was very irritated. Worst of all, they used my words to legitimise this incorrect information. I called the journalist and spoke very firmly.”
Petros said that for a task team to be formed, it needs to comply with certain regulations and that it would have a paper trail. The Times has failed to supply any evidence of this task team, aside from hearsay, he said.
The commissioner then decided to go onto Radio 702 to tell his side of the story. “I didn’t know that I was provoking more discussion. I heard the journalist responding and saying that the public have a right to know. Well, the public have a right to correct information,” Petros said.
Following the 702 interview, Times editor Phylicia Oppelt attacked the station in an editorial, published on Thursday. She insinuated that the station and Primedia head of news Yusuf Abramjee were somehow under the sway of Petros.
“What is astounding is the audacity of omission, the grandstanding and the style of journalism practised by 702. It leads me to wonder what exactly transpired between Abramjee and Petros, and how decisions are made at 702,” Oppelt wrote.
“It is a well-known fact that the station's owner, Primedia, ‘rents out’ senior staff to educate others on how to deal with the media. Previous clients include the SAPS, which in 2010 paid R22,800 for advice from Katy Katopodis, Eyewitness News group editor-in-chief, and Abramjee.
“Clearly, at 702 there is nothing wrong with stepping across professional boundaries,” she wrote.
Abramjee dismissed Oppelt’s criticism as a cheap shot.
“I was approached my General Petros in my capacity as chairman of the National Press Club. I did indicate to him it was a matter for the newspaper to handle to and to resolve. I further advised him to take it up with the editor, the public editor of Avusa or the Press Ombudsman. Suggestions of a commercial link to Petros is malicious, disingenuous and nothing more than rubbish,” Abramjee said.
“Talk Radio 702 interviewed Petros because the issue is in the public domain and John Robbie did comment on the story (on air) when he read the original story in the Times. After interviewing Petros, a right of reply was given to the reporter, Graeme Hosken, who gave his response on air.”
Abramjee added, “I have said it before and I repeat it: ‘Those who know us are fully aware that we praise the police if and when we have to, and we criticise them if and when we have to. Our track record speaks for itself’. For the record, I was not even aware that Petros was coming on air until I heard him being interviewed by John [Robbie].”
702 station manager Pheladi Gwangwa has also written to Oppelt to complain about her editorial. “Ms. Oppelt further refers to a payment for R22,800 made by SAPS in 2010 to Primedia Broadcasting’s Mr. Yusuf Abramjee and Ms. Katy Katapodis for media training, and suggests that there is a link between our decision to interview General Petros and that payment (which was for services rendered). We categorically deny that there is any such link. In fact, Ms. Oppelt’s linkage is at best mischievous and at worst malicious. Our reason for conducting that interview are that we wanted to get to the truth of the matter: ‘Are Gauteng’s freeways safe or not’?” wrote Gwangwa.
Abramjee has reported The Times to the Avusa public editor for “false, defamatory and malicious statements and insinuations”.
The Daily Maverick’s attempts to get comment from Hosken and Oppelt were unsuccessful, save for the reporter to say that the editor said that they were not responding to any articles.
When we spoke to Petros, he said that he did not believe this story was planted for political reasons.
The Sunday Times previously published a story claiming that Petros was involved in illegal renditions – or the kidnapping of people and taking them over the border to Zimbabwe, where they would get murdered. It appears now that the story may have been planted by people acting on behalf of former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli.
Another story, also published by the Sunday Times, said that the Gauteng MEC for community safety had received a complaint about Petros. Apparently the provincial commissioner was under the thrall of a sangoma. That story was severely panned by Petros, who said that whilst it was true that there was a complaint against him, it had come from the friends of a man he fired in the Vaal for threatening his fellow police officers.
Despite the trend of negative stories about him emerging from Avusa titles, Petros does not believe that people are planting malicious stories to discredit him for political reasons. “I don’t know. But if it is politics, why? There is nothing to be gained by it,” Petros said. “I just don’t want this thing to centre around me, but the people must receive correct information. Unfortunately I have become stuck in the middle of a media feud.” DM
Photo: General Mzwandile Petros