Johannesburg - When you decide to go into journalism, especially photojournalism, you know that you are putting your life in harm’s way to serve your country.
More so when the country in which you operate is riven by war, as is the case in Syria. The reasonable assumption is that the more democratic and peaceful a country becomes, the safer it is for journalists to operate.
About 20 journalists have been killed since the beginning of this year, eight of them in Syria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has been documenting assaults on media freedom since 1992. Last year, 70 were killed, 28 of whom were in Syria, with Somalia occupying the second spot with eight murders.
Elsewhere on our continent this month, police temporarily shut down four newspapers because they reported on consternation in the security agencies about a plan by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to shamelessly hand over power to his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, in 2016.
In Africa’s newest country, South Sudan, the CPJ reports that the managing editor of Juba Monitor, Michael Koma, was arbitrarily arrested for writing an article critical of a deputy minister of security. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a journalist who had been missing for 12 days was found dead.
Journalists often risk life and limb to get their readers that picture, that story that someone does not want to see published.
So, when some schmuck working for the Red Ants lifted his gun and aimed it at The Star’s Motshwari Mofokeng, pumping a rubber bullet into his chest at close range, without even thinking (I am uncertain we should expect a Red Ant to think) about it, he crossed the line.
But it is the nonchalant manner of his violation that is concerning. He appears assured there will be no consequences for shooting our photographer. A sense of accomplishment and a withering disdain about him should not go unchallenged. Before he was shot, Motshwari was slapped in the face twice by another Red Ant for taking pictures. That sense of impunity, of being a law unto himself.
When I spoke to Motshwari later, I thought perhaps the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), where I have the honour to serve as chairman of the media freedom committee, must issue a statement condemning this brazen, dastardly deed. And I immediately recalled that we’ve just released a statement after an attack on Cape Argus photographer David Ritchie.
He, too, was simply taking pictures when a Home Affairs official manhandled him, grabbed his camera and started deleting his pictures. What cheek, you would think. The condemnation was canonical.
An attack on Thomas Holder, from the same newsroom, soon followed. He, too, was punched by Home Affairs officials.
And you will recall that journalists of the Sowetan and The Star were attacked by correctional services officials at Groenpunt Maximum Prison in the Free State and had their cameras searched and images deleted, including images unrelated to Groenpunt. An inmate who was attacked by Groenpunt officials later died.
And, and and…
The point is that there appears to be an increase in violations of the media’s right to inform citizens about the good and the bad in their countries.
One theme that runs like a steady current across almost all of the examples I have cited is concern about self-incriminating evidence. Journalists are klapped, elsewhere killed, because they have information that could prove wanton criminality or malfeasance by officials.
When our Motshwari was klapped and shot this week, he was first asked why he was taking pictures.
Some who do work for the Red Ants are known to be heartless beasts.
They thrive on ruthlessness. They show no mercy. When photographers go out on assignments like these, where people are evicted at the crack of dawn in winter, they would naturally, as all sensible journalists do, worry about how children, pensioners, disabled people and women are affected. They will take pictures that show the heartlessness of the actions by the Red Ants. Naturally, the Red Ants would take exception at being photographed or portrayed for who they are known to be. And this is sad. For, invariably, those affected, those always evicted, are very poor people.
It would have taken them a long time to amass the little they have. Odd jobs aren’t that dependable. And now the Red Ants...
It is the sort of stuff that pulls at the heartstrings. The sort of thing Motshwari and other photographers should be allowed to do without inhibitions.
Let me be clear. Those who wrongly occupy other people’s buildings should be evicted. But this can be done without being mean and heartless. Everybody, including murderers and rapists, is entitled to be treated with dignity, the Constitutional Court has long ruled.
Evictions must be done in accordance with the law. To behave as if you are the lord of the hoi polloi because you have a gun loaded with rubber bullets is shameful. We should recoil from this.
Sanef is not going to issue a statement merely condemning what has now sadly become the norm. It will issue a statement congratulating the paper for ensuring justice for our journalists. Motshwari has opened a case against his assailants. We will pursue this matter in court.
The truth is that media freedom is not a privilege for media practitioners.
It is about enfranchising the poor; it is about giving the likes of those evicted by Red Ants information about inequitable practices and application of the law so that they can take the right decisions for themselves.
Media freedom is about giving a voice to those poor women, children and disabled people whose property is destroyed without blinking.
All of us, as freedom-cherishing South Africans, must realise that every time a journalist is klapped, or shot, or killed, it is not merely about their publication or family, it is about all of us.
We should be relieved that Motshwari, walking in the shadow of Ken Oosterbroek and the Bang Bang Club, is a consummate professional and will not shirk his responsibility to aim the camera at the Red Ants again should he witness them treating the weak and infirm as they did this week.
But continued attacks on journalists have the potential to create self-censorship, which is bad for democracy.
Journalists put their lives in harm’s way not because they have an addiction to dangerous situations, but because it is for the broader benefit of society. What will we become without a free press? What role are you playing to ensure one?
As an editor and Sanef’s spokesman, I am tired of merely condemning assaults on journalists. The terrain of our struggle must shift to the courts. Those who aim guns and/or klap journalists, will face the full wrath of the law and thus know there are consequences for their conduct.
That’s a promise, and I will make sure of that.