Johannesburg:┬áUneasiness has enthralled the media fraternity in South Africa following the government’s alleged jamming of cellular phone signals during the country’s State of the Nation address.
The unprecedented censorship widely criticised by the media, the opposition and civil society, happened in anticipation of disruptions by a raucous opposition party, which for weeks had warned it was going to use every available opportunity to press President Jacob Zuma to account for excessive expenditure in security upgrades at his private residence in his native home in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
The government has come under fire for its alleged attempt to conceal what would have been, and it was, an embarrassment to it caused by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF disrupted proceedings by asking the President when and how he was going to pay back the money. “By EFT?, Cash? or e-Wallet? ” asked EFF Member of Parliament (MP) Gardee Godrich Ahmed immediately when Zuma began to deliver his address.
The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) was scheduled to meet President Jacob Zuma on Friday over concerns about the curtailment of broadcasting of live parliamentary proceedings outside the confines of parliament.
The incident of jamming, some say scrambling, of cellular phone signals inside parliament which attracted protests from the media and opposition parties, witnessed a little over a week ago in Cape Town, has ignited debate about the freedom of the press in South Africa. The media, and at least two opposition parties, say the action by the government was inconsistent with the provisions of the country’s Constitution on freedom of expression.
The government has denied the incident was meant to target the media. The government initially said the incident was a technical glitch before acknowledging eventually that a State organ was involved in the jamming ÔÇô the National Intelligence Agency.
The media, SANEF┬á┬áin particular, and pro media organisations have, to this end, made an urgent application to the courts to prevent the government from the temptation to repeat such a political alacrity in future and especially ahead of the budget speech next week. Additionally, the media seek the courts to order the government to allow journalists to bring their own equipment and disseminate unedited live feeds from parliament to their audiences.
This past week in the leafy suburb of Sandton, Talk Radio 702 hosted a panel discussion over the state of media freedom and democracy in South Africa following the jamming of cellular phone signals in parliament during Zuma’s State of the Nation Address which, rather predictably, descended into a brawl between the security apparatus and opposition legislators leading to the forceful removal of members of the EFF and the subsequent a walkout protest by those of the official opposition Democratic Alliance from parliament.
An argument for Constitutional democracy in South Africa took centre stage.
Former labour activist and Minister in post apartheid South Africa Jay Naidoo says democracy is under threat in South Africa. Naidoo took attendees on the memory lane that former President Nelson Mandela argued strongly that the critical and investigative independent media is the life blood of democracy.
“Our Constitutional democracy guarantees us the right of voice. President Zuma is causing a political paralysis in our society” said Naidoo in his response to the unprecedented jamming of signals. The incident happened while the┬á┬áopposition was about to ask President Zuma to personally account for an alleged multi-million lavish personal presidential palace in the Kwa Zulu Natal Province ÔÇô a development which has attracted widespread criticism as an unnecessary opulence expenditure in the region of R260 million.
┬á“The ANC shouted us down when we said bring back the signal” said the associate editor at the online Daily Maverick Ranjeni Munusamy who said she was present in the press gallery in Cape Town during the address.
For his part, The University of the Witwatersrand Professor Adam Habib said South Africa’s democratic culture is not as rooted as it should in the leadership of the country and blamed the President for failing to lead.
“President Jacob Zuma is an incapable leader. He is complacent. The government needs to manage the media in its plurality.