If Wednesday night’s statement by the Department of State Security regarding the SONA signal jamming prompted incredulity, Thursday morning’s press briefing by ministers in the security cluster took credulity and threw it out the window. The myriad evasions and paltry justifications on offer may leave you feeling either insulted – or scared. In the best possible interpretation, it’s a story of bizarre incompetence. In the worst, it’s an outright lie. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Here’s a hint to the Department of State Security: If you’re going to try convince a room full of journalists that black is white, maybe ensure that half of them weren’t actually present for the events that you’re trying to explain away.
Among the evasions and half-truths offered by State Security Minister David Mahlobo to the press on Thursday morning, when dealing with the issue of the scrambling of cellphone signal to the National Assembly during SONA, was that: “Some media people had access [to signal] in the House and some didn’t”.
The Daily Maverick has yet to encounter a single journalist who had normally-functioning signal in the House prior to the protest which miraculously restored the signal. If that had been the case, perhaps journalists like Stephen Grootes would not have had to resort to hanging out of a window in the men’s toilet in order to file a story.
Mahlobo’s claim formed part of a narrative which sought to suggest that there was no jamming, just “disruption”.
If the signal had actually been jammed, Mahlobo suggested, there would have been a “total shutdown” of the signal.
“Those particular glitches were happening at various points,” he said.
It was not “jamming”. It was a “disruption”, or a “glitch”.
There was also “no political decision to interfere with the flow of information”. The glitchy disruption was “not targeted at anyone”. (Never mind that Speaker Baleka Mbete repeatedly told journalists on Tuesday: “The media was not the target”, suggesting strongly that there was a different target.)
The disruption was an operational error; collateral damage from the wider project to “secure the state”. Ministers of State Security, Police, Defence, and so on, do not dirty their hands with lowly operational matters. Blame that nameless tech dude who left the thingie on to stop the drones coming into the National Assembly.
But wait, journalists said. We don’t get it. Break it down in simple words for us.
In your statement yesterday, you said that the signal disruption was caused by a “failure to properly terminate the device” which secures a no-fly airspace over Parliament.
How exactly does that work? And why was the airspace being secured apparently only directly over the National Assembly itself, especially if its stated purpose was to protect the President’s convoy in transit?
Absolutely no concrete answers to these questions were forthcoming in the press briefing, so Daily Maverick turned to our in-house military defence expert, John Stupart, for clarification.
“The no-fly zone and use of signal jammer is plausible,” Stupart said.
It could be true if, for instance, the jammer was used outside and had been brought into the National Assembly to charge it. But since signals weren’t jammed outside
Parliament at the time, that would mean that the no-fly zone would have been compromised by bringing the device inside. We’ll leave aside how strange it would be for security forces to carry the no-fly jamming device two flights of stairs up inside the National Assembly to charge it in the technical box next to the media bay, rather than charging it in an office or Tuynhuys.
Referring to a “jamming device” which journalists tweeted pictures of, Stupart said:
“The jammer that was pictured in that tweet was commonly designed to block signals from attackers attempting to trigger IEDs [improvised explosive devices] remotely, ie via mobile phones. In which case, it was plausibly used outside to achieve just such a thing, and then brought in once the President was secure.”
There’s one problem with this charitable interpretation: the device was not brought in once the President was secure. When Daily Maverick journalists entered the National Assembly roughly two hours before the President’s arrival on the precinct, the signal was already jammed. Well before the President’s arrival, other journalists were tweeting pictures of the device inside the National Assembly.
What about the note which was passed from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to Minister Mahlobo, minutes before the magical reappearance of the missing signal?
“It’s not abnormal to receive notes in the House,” Mahlobo said. The note contained his “private discussion” with Ramaphosa. Mahlobo denied leaving the House after receiving the note, as some journalists had claimed. “Let’s not try to create a story that was never there,” he said.
How about a story that was there: the story of the EFF’s promise to ask President Zuma about Nkandla at the State of the Nation, a story endlessly reported on by the media in advance – as Defence Minister Nosiviwe Masipa-Nqakula reminded journalists. Her implication was that journalists couldn’t suddenly act all shocked about plain-clothed police and whatwhat when the very same journalists had been reporting on the EFF’s plans to disrupt SONA for weeks in advance.
“Let’s not pretend there was no threat,” the Defence Minister said. “There was a threat. Part of our planning was routine, but part of it was based on that threat.”
But can elected representatives raising points of order in Parliament really be classed as a threat to national security?
Well, that wasn’t the only threat, ministers said evasively. There was also terrorism. “Boko Haram,” Minister Mahlobo mentioned darkly, as if it was only the jamming of signal to cellphones that had prevented Boko Haram from abseiling into the Chamber and kidnapping the ANC’s women.
At a certain point in the press conference, journalists were asked for a “guarantee” that they would stop asking questions about the events of SONA: a request which happily went ignored. Journalists were also asked not to pre-empt the results of an investigation into the matter to be carried out by State Security.
“Don’t send a message that we must not secure you,” Mahlobo appealed. “We will always secure you.” Was that a promise, or a threat? DM
Photo: State Security Minister David Mahlobo. Picture: Lerato Maduna, courtesy of City Press.
Glitches in tactical surveillance measures jammed communications: Mahlobo, on TimesLive;