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Johannesburg - Journalists carrying out their professional duty should be protected from interference and possible harm, the SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) said on Friday.
It bemoaned action by prison officials against reporters on Wednesday during a parliamentary visit to Groenpunt Prison in Bloemfontein.
Journalists were detained after taking pictures of prison warders beating a prisoner, who later died.
The forum said: “The journalists said the official erased not only the pictures of the prisoner being beaten up, but other pictures which had nothing to do with the Groenpunt visit.”
The deletion of photographs was an attempt to destroy evidence and merited charges of defeating the ends of justice against those responsible, said Sanef.
The tour of the prison was arranged by the parliamentary portfolio committee on correctional services, after prisoners were involved in violent protests a week earlier.
“Sanef is astonished that journalists... who were invited to tour the facility by the parliamentary committee, were surrounded by armed warders who ordered them out of their cars.”
The journalists were held for an hour and described their treatment as “humiliating and terrifying” while correctional services officials took away the journalists' cameras, memory cards, and cellphones, and deleted their photographs.
Congress of the People's (Cope) Dennis Bloem condemned the “alleged barbaric” behaviour of correctional officials.
“This reminds us of the apartheid government's strong-hand tactics,” he said.
“This cannot be allowed in a democracy.”
He called on the department to apologise to journalists and insist on an investigation into the incident.
Correctional services portfolio committee chairman Vincent Smith said on Wednesday the taking of photographs by the media during a parliamentary visit to the prison was not allowed.
“Journalists were asked not to take photos of the correctional facilities and of inmates,” Smith said at the time.
The portfolio committee inspected the Groenpunt maximum security prison outside Deneysville, where inmates rioted last week.
Smith defended the officials, and said they had acted within their rights.
“If 1/8prison 3/8 officials had deleted photos of inmates and that which would compromise the security of the facility, they were within their rights,” he said.
Smith said if it was true that prison officials had deleted other unrelated photos, this fell outside the agreement and was something for which the department of correctional services should answer.
On Friday, correctional services said a Groenpunt inmate who was assaulted by warders at the prison had died.
Free State deputy regional commissioner Grace Molatedi said: “I can confirm that the inmate had died, but I can't confirm that he died as a result of the attack,” she said.
“The police have been instructed to conduct a post mortem because the cause of death is not known. He died immediately after the attack.”
Emergency personnel, police officers, and prison officials intervened.
“The life of 1/8a 3/8 prison official was at stake. It is policy for other officials to intervene and use any means necessary to restrain the inmates in a situation like that.”
Three prisoners were involved in the attack on the official and a fourth apparently provided the weapons used in the attack. Investigations were continuing.
Sanef said the journalists and photographers were at the prison on an officially sanctioned assignment and should have been protected from interference.
“Indeed, the committee was seriously at fault for leaving the scene when the journalists were detained, instead of interceding and protecting them,” the editors said.
“Having been invited by the committee, the journalists should have been accorded the same immunity from interference as the parliamentarians were entitled to.”
Sanef said it would request Parliament to investigate the incident and to adopt mechanisms to ensure the protection of journalists when they were covering the work of members of parliament. - Sapa