[UPDATE: Mbete on Wednesday said in an ANC statement issued in her capacity as ANC national chairperson with regards to the Speaker’s Ball hosted by her as National Assembly Speaker: “This dinner is not hosted nor funded by neither the African National Congress nor Parliament. It is a private dinner”.
Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli has promised that he would ensure there would be no restrictions for accredited media covering the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in and around the parliamentary precinct:
“I will make these arrangements,” he undertook, after saying: “There will be no restrictions for media to do their work around Parliament.”
This undertaking came after the Deputy Speaker, who in the absence of Mbete and her National Council of Provinces (NCOP) counterpart Thandi Modise faced journalists who outlined to him in detail new SONA 2017 security measures that appeared unprecedented. These include restricted access to the precinct and its buildings, escorts for accredited journalists, who traditionally have free movement across the parliamentary precinct to cover the pomp and ceremony before the 19.00 presidential address, and media being limited to what is dubbed a “media square” near one of the gates to the people’s Parliament.
“Media square, I do not know what that is,” said Tsenoli. “Who concocted this idea of a media square?” he later asked, pointing out that with today’s communication capacity it was “absurd” to impose restrictions, which would be akin to trying to plug water leaks with your fingers.
Tsenoli’s comments on Tuesday come in the wake of confirmation that Parliament’s presiding officers, or the institution’s political bosses, and Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana had met over the national legislature’s SONA 2017 preparations.
This week Mgidlana was spotted mingling with dignitaries, first at the Progressive Professionals Forum’s (PPF) interaction with deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa – one of the ANC’s activities in the run-up to its SONA people’s assembly – and then at Tuesday’s business investment luncheon hosted by Zuma ahead of SONA.
However, on January 25, 2017, Mgidlana in a letter to parliamentarians and staff sets out media arrangements:
“A special entrance for media will be created next to the Roeland Street entrance at the Flame of Remembrance… media entering this entrance must be accredited and will be restricted to media square and their designated areas.”
At last Thursday’s media briefing on SONA 2017, Mgidlana said journalists would be “free to do your work”, but, in response to a direct question about escorts for journalists, replied: “It will not be any State Security Agency (SSA), SAPS or South African Defence Force (SANDF) [officials]. If anything at all our officials will be assisted by Government Communication and Information Systems (GCIS) officials.”
Mgidlana also confirmed the presence and involvement of SSA operatives in SONA 2017, but denied that they vetted parliamentary staff with SONA duties:
“There is no project in SONA of vetting of staff”.
However, Daily Maverick has seen an e-mail sent to participating staff, requesting them to complete a template with personal and work details. “Attached is the template with the information required by the State Security Agency for accreditation,” it says. A similar template, but with no word of SSA screening, was sent as part of the media accreditation process.
Security at SONA has come into sharp focus since the 2015 event was disrupted first by a signal jammer near the media bay, and then by the forceful eviction by a special “high risk” unit, including public order police, of EFF MPs for their “Pay Back the Money” protest over the Nkandla saga.
Ahead of that SONA, Mgidlana publicly stated there were “no extraordinary” security measures in place. Days after the disruptions Mbete publicly acknowledged that presiding officers were briefed on “a plan for certain equipment to be deployed without necessarily knowing details”, as Modise added: “The words they used was ‘somebody has some machines’,” without understanding there would be scrambling. The presiding officers accepted State Security Minister David Mahlobo’s apology that an oversight by a junior official meant the jamming device was left in place.
SONA 2016 unfolded only after EFF points of order against Zuma speaking in the House again led to their eviction. And while a similar scenario is anticipated this year, no one in the parliamentary hierarchy talks of it except in oblique references to learning lessons of the past.
Amid all this, the media, which have covered SONA and other disruptions in the House, now are in the security cross-hairs.
The issue of significantly stepped-up security restrictions and escorts for journalists first arose when the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association (PGA) met Parliament’s communications unit on January 23, 2017. The meeting was called by Parliament “to discuss changes related to the State of the Nation Address 2017 media bay tickets”, according to communication seen by Daily Maverick.
Subsequently the PGA has for almost two weeks – unsuccessfully – requested meetings with Parliament’s communication unit to address concerns over restrictions to journalists’ movements. The streamlining of media bay tickets is not an issue.
PGA chairperson Joylene van Wyk told Daily Maverick that on Monday evening security officials confirmed media would not be allowed to move without an escort across the parliamentary precinct.
A meeting between the PGA and Parliament’s senior management is now scheduled for Wednesday morning. This comes as the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has also raised its concerns with Modise, who has referred the matter to Mgidlana.
Sanef Western Cape convenor Janet Heard said journalists require freedom of movement to report accurately and fairly on events in the public interest.
“The PGA has always followed protocol and abided by additional security requirements laid down for SONA. But concerns have been mounting over the past three years as security is being tightened each year and the SSA is playing an increasing role”.
Heard that added Sanef supported the PGA in “its critical efforts to get assurances the security services have been instructed to ensure that come Thursday, journalists are able to do their jobs”.
Meanwhile, Parliament on Monday evening issued a statement insisting there was nothing new in the media arrangements for SONA 2017 developed for “optimal” coverage. Parliament said it “dismissed allegations of more stringent security measures that could inhibit media’s ability to perform their roles of effectively covering the State of the Nation Address for the benefit of all the people in South Africa and internationally”. It said “the same provisions of the previous years will apply in 2017 with even additional support to enable the media to comprehensively cover the SONA”.
However, in previous years journalists were accredited as journalists, not for a specific geographic location like media square. Access to Parliament was restricted to accredited persons from 13.00 on the day, not 22.00 the night before, as Mgidlana’s letter in January said, alongside its instruction that staff without SONA duties should stay at home for the day. Staff on the parliamentary precinct traditionally stood at the red carpet to watch the fashion parade, ceremonial activities like the military parades, civilian guard of honour and the walk up the red carpet by judges, premiers and, finally, the president, his deputy and Parliament’s presiding officers.
This year, staff are “required to stay clear of the procession in Parliament Street, chamber and gallery, if not assigned to perform duties in the said areas”, according to Mgidlana’s letter of January 25, 2017.
On Tuesday DA chief whip John Steenhuisen wrote to Mgidlana to register its “objection to the unwarranted securitisation of the parliamentary precinct” for SONA. “The proposed plan will make it impossible for some journalists to access their offices and will effectively render the Marks Building off-limits to media,” Steenhuisen said. “The DA considers the proposed security measures for SONA 2017 to be disproportionate and unnecessarily burdensome. We ask for your assurances that accredited media personnel and party support staff will be allowed reasonable and unencumbered movement on the parliamentary precinct on the day of SONA.”
Several other opposition parties are similarly appalled at the heightened security measures. The ANC in Parliament said it was satisfied with the presiding officers’ undertaking that there are no media security restrictions.
“We have no reason to believe otherwise,” said ANC parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo. “We agree with the Deputy Speaker’s view that any restriction that hampers journalists’ freedom of movement would be against the interest of media freedom.”
But there’s been little but obfuscation by Parliament amid invocations of security concomitant to an event of national importance that brings together all spheres of state. By law security services, defined in the Constitution as the police, defence force and intelligence services, may enter and remain for any policing function, “only with the permission and under the authority of the Speaker or the Chairperson [of the NCOP]”. That’s according to Clause 4 of the 2004 Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, which squarely puts Parliament’s presiding officers in charge of the parliamentary precincts and all its buildings.
On Monday Mbete took to Cape Town’s Nyanga township to meet “professional women in business”, according to the ANC’s SONA build-up programme to its people’s assembly.
Briefing on this ANC SONA build-up, ANC head of campaigns Fikile Mbalula, who is also the Sports Minister, on Tuesday said: “It is in the interest of the ANC to become the transmitter of good news arriving out of the SONA.”
Whether the Speaker, who is also the ANC’s national chairperson, will be at the Grand Parade gathering remains to be seen. If she could, she “would be able to make a turn”, he added.
However, Mbalula distanced the ANC from Mbete’s Speaker’s Ball, even though the RSVPs are made to an ANC e-mail address, according to the invitation seen by Daily Maverick. “The ANC as an organisation is not involved… We would have called it the people’s ball.”
Parliament has also distanced itself from the event, according to a City Press report. The Speaker’s Ball comes amid National Treasury cost-cutting instructions, and Parliament’s announcement last week that it would not hold a post-SONA function. Confirming his attendance, Tsenoli on Tuesday said:
“I don’t know who funds the Speaker’s Ball.”
While the invitation to a top hotel in the plush seaside suburb of Camps Bay does not feature the logo of Parliament, it does Mbete’s photograph and the invitation: “The Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa, Honourable Baleka Mbete requests the pleasure of your company at The Speaker’s Ball”.
That invite has raised the heckles of the DA, which alongside questions to the ministers of state security, police and public works over their respective expenditures on SONA, will also raise the Speaker’s Ball issue with Mgidlana. The Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament, established last year, is meant to oversee spending by the national legislature.
Whether that happens will depend on the political will of the governing ANC, whose national chairperson and party president hopeful come the ANC’s national elective conference in December, is the host of the Speaker’s Ball. It could, of course, be that Mbete is paying for the Speaker’s Ball from her own pocket.
Meanwhile, the spin is on to downplay SONA 2017 security arrangements for media as nothing extraordinary and in line with previous years. But amid the obfuscations Parliament has already lost – regardless of what actually happens on the day. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (L) arrives to give his Sate of the Nation address at the opening session of Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 11 February 2016. EPA/MIKE HUTCHINGS
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