The media gather outside the entrance to Parliament for the State of the Nation Address on Thursday. Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams
The media gather outside the entrance to Parliament for the State of the Nation Address on Thursday. Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

Signal jamming and other worrying signs

By Time of article published Feb 17, 2015

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Parliament must take immediate steps to ensure that Thursday’s heavy-handed securocratic tactics are not repeated, write Micah Reddy and Murray Hunter.

Parliament belongs to the people, not the securocrats, write Micah Reddy and Murray Hunter.

Johannesburg - It was widely anticipated that there would be fireworks at last week’s State of the Nation Address, but what we got was a whole lot more – the entire stage went up in flames.

By now we are all familiar with the main events of Thursday evening. (And we don’t mean the address by the president.)

It appeared to be a calculated response to the public outrage last year when the live television feed was cut and “riot” police entered the chamber. This time around, instead of the cameras being cut, they just focused doggedly away from the action. Instead of being dressed in riot gear, the police wore plain clothes. (In fact no official source has admitted they were police, though journalists have identified several of them as police officers.)

Perhaps the most alarming assault on parliamentary democracy was the premeditated attempt to censor what was inevitably going to be an embarrassing affair for the president and the ruling party. The revelations of signal jamming that emerged as soon as the session was getting under way are a shocking indictment on the state of our Parliament and, in particular, the security cluster, which was almost certainly involved in this.

The use of jamming devices prevented journalists inside Parliament from using their cellphones and accessing the internet, infringing on their constitutional right to impart and receive information and preventing them from doing their jobs, until protestations forced those responsible to bring back the signal.

Such draconian tactics are the hallmark of authoritarian regimes, and this latest incident underscores the worrying extent of the security cluster’s overreach in trying to shield the president.

The jamming of cellular signals in Parliament was, as far as we know, unprecedented in South Africa. And as in many other countries, it is also illegal.

In 2012, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) said that “no organisation is allowed to jam cellular signal, and any device which is used to jam signal is illegal”.

But following Jacob Zuma’s speech, the communications regulator appeared to backtrack on its previous position by adding confusing caveats. It says that jamming cellular signals may be carried out by the security cluster “where supported by relevant security legislation”.

But what is this legislation? As far as we can see, none exists that would authorise the use of signal jamming.

Who was behind this signal jamming? All the political parties, including the ANC, have condemned it. Human rights organisations have condemned it. The Presidency has condemned it. The DA’s Gavin Davis has also pointed out that, under the Electronic Communications Act, Icasa is obliged to investigate the matter.

Parliament has also said it would investigate, although in a statement it referred to vague “problems with mobile-phone connectivity” rather than acknowledging an orchestrated attempt to block communications in Parliament. Another minister preferred to refer to it as a “glitch”.

It takes a serious stretch of the imagination to think that the signal blocking was undertaken without the knowledge or involvement of the country’s securocrats, especially given the unusually heightened security presence around Parliament.

The operation itself has the State Security’s fingerprints all over it. This is highly sensitive technology, mainly used by foreign militaries and security agencies, and not widely available in South Africa.

Even if the State Security Agency were not involved, the question would be: How on Earth did someone acquire and deploy the technology without them hearing about it?

Several witnesses, including Professor Richard Calland in the Public Law Department at UCT and a newspaper editor, report seeing Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa direct a hastily scribbled note to State Security Minister David Mahlobo. Mahlobo furtively read the note, left the chamber for a while, and shortly afterwards the signal returned.

Brian Dube, the State Security spokesman, has denied involvement.

What is clear is that nothing is clear. Towards the end of last year new “security” measures were quietly put in place by the Security Cluster in response to the challenge posed by the EFF. These measures remain secret. It seems that not even MPs were consulted and Parliamentary office bearers refuse to discuss them in public. Does the plan include the use of plain-clothes riot police, signal-jamming, or interruption of the television feed?

Does it give over any of Parliament’s autonomy to security structures who should have no mandate in those hallowed halls? Who is in charge and who was in the know? The answers to these questions remain shrouded in secrecy.

What is needed is for democrats to challenge and check these developments. The events in Parliament happened after other recent worrying signs of the security services overstepping their constitutional boundaries.

A financial daily claimed earlier this month that people suspected of being associated with State Security had offered journalists money to spy on the EFF.

A Mpumalanga news service reported that Premier David Mabuza had boasted about receiving intelligence briefings on the activities of journalists in his province. In November, officials in the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa reported attempts to recruit shopstewards to spy on the union’s activities.

If only a shred of this is true, democrats of all stripes should be worried.

We need to stop being worried and start taking action – and there are signs that this is happening. On Thursday, the media, civil society, the opposition and at least those members of the public who are connected to social media all pushed back against attempts to block communications in the House.

There are also signs – evidenced by the ANC’s condemnation – that elements in the governing party are equally uncomfortable with these events.

Thursday’s events were a particularly ugly insight into the confusion and chaos that can be wrought by a creeping securitisation of the state and political life in South Africa. Parliament has also announced that the type of heavy-handed “security” on display will be here to stay – “not only for special events but for the general functioning of the national legislature”.

It is vital that Parliament – and all political parties within Parliament – commits to resolve the crisis it finds itself in through democratic means.

The institution must take immediate steps to ensure that the heavy-handed securocratic tactics that we saw on Thursday do not repeat themselves, and to assert its autonomy from the securocrats.

And it is up to South Africans from all walks of life to demand this from what is, after all, our Parliament.

* Micah Reddy and Murray Hunter are organisers with the Right2Know Campaign.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star

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