How times change. Less than a month ago we were celebrating a court’s decision to publish a list of top secret locations (including the largest radio telescope on Earth) which are designated national keypoints. Any chance that that would herald a new era of information freedom and transparency were overturned last night, when journalists found they couldn’t report on the activity of elected politicians doing their jobs because of disconnected TV and audio feeds and an apparent cellphone signal blackout during the State of the Nation Address.
The campaigning organisation which pushed for the release of the national keypoint list isn’t happy with last night’s proceedings. In fact, says Right2Know (R2K), all South Africans should be pretty scared. It’s kicking off a campaign to “protect parliament from securocrats” which it says are engaging in unlawful surveillance, invasions of privacy and “suppression of dissenting voices”.
R2K was established in order to campaign against the Protection of State Information Bill – the so called ‘Secrecy Bill’ which could see journalists threatened with 25 year prison terms if they read a classified document passed on to them by a source – and is becoming South Africa’s most outspoken defender of online rights. R2K makes a clear connection between the events of last night which seemed to violate democractic rights to report on parliament and previous attempts to spy on journalists working on public interest cases. The organisation says in statement issued today:
It is an undeniable reality that the hands of the securocrats appear to be everywhere. As Business Day has pointed out, just last Sunday, Zuma “told a gathering of editors and journalists that he saw no problem with revelations that the State Security Agency (SSA) was [allegedly] monitoring the movements and communication of journalists in order to identify their sources and report to senior ANC politicians like Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza”.
R2K also echoed a point made by TechCentral last night: that the regulator ICASA has previously ruled that phone jamming signals operated by anyone – including security services – are illegal.
“We note inconsistent statements from ICASA, however, on whether the security cluster may use signal jamming. As recently as 2012, ICASA stated that it was unlawful for security bodies to signal jam, but stated this morning that security bodies ‘may, where supported by relevant security legislation, deploy the use of jammers’. Does such security legislation exist? We call on ICASA to clear up this inconsistency,” the group said.
ICASA itself has said it will work with the parliamentary investigation to discover whether or not the phone jamming signal was deployed legally. According to SAPA reports, the ANC has also condemned blocking cell phone signals during the address.
Along with the DA and members of the EFF, R2K is also calling for a full investigation into the fact that police officers were called in to remove EFF members from parliament, stating that such an act would be in violation of the constitution.
We demand to know who gave the order for police in civilian clothes to enter the chamber to forcibly remove Economic Freedom Fighters MPs. That action, is not only a breach of the constitution in terms of Section 58 of the Constitution which prohibits arrests, criminal or civil procedure on members of parliament for what they say in parliament, but has the effect of irrevocably undermining parliament as a democratic institution in the eyes of citizens.