While everyone condemned the jamming of the cellphone network during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday, no one claimed responsibility; no one knew anything about it. On Tuesday Primedia, Media 24, the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), Open Democracy Advice Centre and Right2Know took the matter to court. It emerged that the National Intelligence Agency, and whoever might have commanded them or known or their plans, is to blame. By GREG NICOLSON.
“What the hell are they doing?” I asked myself looking over at the media on Thursday night. I was there as a photographer, and we sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the gallery steps, squeezed as though we were in the back seat of a taxi, facing the Speaker so we are able see the president deliver his speech. On the right was the ANC leadership – Gwede Mantashe, Zweli Mkhize and Jessie Duarte – on the left were former Presidents F.W. de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki and their wives.
Across the rows of MPs, I thought the media were chanting “Bring back our girls!” before I noticed they were holding their phones, tablets and laptops in the air. “Bring back our signal!” they yelled. Bemused, I looked at the esteemed row in the gallery. Some checked their phones and muttered. It was clear: there would be chaos in the House tonight. If the media, who, despite our critics, are used to putting up with a lot, have been pushed to the point of protesting Parliament’s most solemn occasion, what will Julius Malema’s EFF do?
By Tuesday morning it seemed like a bad dream.
There seems a clear motive to use a jamming device in the House during SONA. The EFF were likely to disrupt the speech. If they didn’t relent, party members could be evicted from the House. That would embarrass President Zuma and the institution. So the parliamentary feed would likely be cut or diverted if there was any violence. But members of the media could provide the public with live footage, audio and images from their phones – if they had signal. Easy to solve – bring in a jammer and cut it to save face and hide the bad story to tell.
Responding to points of order, Speaker Baleka Mbete admitted, after a note was seen being passed from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to State Security Minister David Mahlobo, that whatever was scrambling the signal had been unscrambled.
But after the fiasco, everyone condemned it but no one owned up the problem. Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said questions about the jamming should go to parliamentary officials. The Alliance Secretariat, including the ANC, Cosatu, SACP and Sanco, condemned the scrambling, while calling the media’s actions “unbecoming”. Cosatu said, “The chaos started when it was discovered that internet coverage within the chamber had been scrambled, so that nobody could send out SMSs, tweets, photos etc. The SONA was changed from afternoons to evenings precisely so that more South Africans could watch it, yet here was an unconstitutional attempt to cut the flow of information from parliament to the people.”
International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said it should be seen as a technical glitch until there’s an investigation. Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services Siyabonga Cwele, who used to be state security minister, said he didn’t know there was a jammer and we shouldn’t speculate.
On Tuesday, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe wrote, “ANC once again condemns the jamming of signal during SONA as this violated the Constitution, equally, we condemn deliberate efforts to disrupt the State of the Nation Address by some members of Parliament, as this was meant to deny our people of their right to receive full account of government plans and commitments as presented by the president. These actions have undermined our democracy and the Constitution, as well as authority of Parliament.”
Mbete denied knowledge of what happened. On Tuesday, she said Parliament doesn’t own a jammer and didn’t order its use. She claimed not to know who was behind killing the signal. “One issue I want to make, one point very clear, is the media, as far as Parliament is concerned, was never a target, or an issue in relation to the preparations of the SONA,” she said, according to EyeWitness News. Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli said, “We do not have that responsibility. We are technical people like any other political committee; it has political and technical people. Now the operations, what they do every step of the way, is not what we are going to be told.”
At the same time, however, it emerged the National Intelligence Agency was behind the jamming. Primedia, Media 24, (Sanef), Open Democracy Advice Centre and Right2Know went to the Western Cape High Court to seek an urgent interdict to ensure there would be no jamming in the House and that disturbances could be covered and broadcast. There, Norman Arendse, representing Parliament, said the National Intelligence Agency was responsible for jamming the signal and, of course, it was a once-off. It’s reported that legal representatives for the State Security Minister will speak further on the matter at a later date.
Dario Milo, who acted for the media applicants, said it never should have happened. Parliament agreed never to jam the signal again, but there was no agreement on how disturbances in the House should be covered, and the matter will be heard in court soon.
So it was the National Intelligence Agency in charge of the signal jamming. The question is, did the Speaker of the National Assembly and the chair of the National Council of Provinces know about the plans? Mbete suggested on Tuesday that parliamentary officials may have. She said they were informed prior to SONA about certain equipment that would be deployed. It seems, then, that Parliament allowed the National Intelligence Agency to curtail the law during SONA, in effect to protect Zuma.
Given these details, it’s embarrassing but revealing that a minister would attack the media for standing up for its rights. In a series of tweets over the weekend, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini lashed out at Primedia head Yusuf Abramjee, who was involved in the protest in Parliament, calling him biased, dishonest; claiming he was grovelling to the opposition, and “pushing us too much… hardening us day by day”. “Say thank you; we had a different agenda last night – we had to ensure no one stages a coup without winning the elections,” wrote the minister, revealing the level of paranoia in the ANC, which seems likely to have motivated the security crackdown.
The minister is clearly wrong. The secretary general of her party has said the jamming was unconstitutional. After the court action, there is no doubt that the media protest was in defence of our enshrined rights and media freedom. DM