umm Abdillah, Radio Islam Programming | 2015.02.02
It’s a sad day when police intimidation mars a peaceful protest. It’s even sadder when said action leads away from highlighting the point of the protest. In recent months, globally and in very different contexts, journalists have found themselves in the unusual position of becoming the subject of news stories rather than the people telling them. Radio Islam journalist, Faizel Patel found that out for himself taking pictures of a BDS protest outside a Woolworths store in Lenasia.
Faizel Patel, a well-known member of the Muslim press community became on-the-spot-reporter while shopping with his family at the Trade Route Mall on Saturday afternoon. It coincided with The Monthly National Day of Action against Woolworths (for having Israeli trade links). He said he was intimidated and sworn at by a constable who told him to stop taking pictures and delete them. He was then forced to accompany the tactical unit to the Lenasia Police Station for the matter to be resolved. He notified the Head of Crime Line, Yusuf Abramjee of the incident. Abramjee alerted the Gauteng SAPS (SA Police Service) leadership and drove to Lenasia. The commander of the unit also arrived and the matter was resolved. Patel decided not to lay charges against the officers. Subsequently, Police spokesperson, Katlego Mogale said in a statement that police denied intimidating Patel or swearing at him. They’ve also denied that he produced a press card, which he did. Yusuf Abramjee has confirmed the spokesperson is wrong in making such statements about the press card. In a separate incident, an Eyewitness News reporter was asked by security to delete audio taken at Bedford Centre in Johannesburg. This was after three customers; two security guards and two robbers were injured and taken to hospital after a robbery and shooting on Thursday.
Whether it’s a community radio station covering a local boycott campaign, or Huffpost covering Ferguson, or James Foley covering ISIS, or Al Jazeera journalists reporting in Egypt, we can only hope that journalists become the subjects of news stories as infrequently as possible. There is a story to report – in this frenzy - Palestine’s voice for justice was decimated. In our fast-evolving news landscape there is a definite change in the makeup of correspondent lineup. Our police service is clearly way behind the curve.
Faizel is not alone in his experience. The case of asking journalists or reporters to delete pictures is a growing trend among the SAPS.
A Sapa reporter was forced by three police officers, not in uniform, to delete pictures from her cellphone she took outside a Somali-owned shop in Dobsonville, Soweto, in January’s xenophobic attacks. Mpho Raborife was driving to work when she passed three Somali-owned shops. Three marked police vehicles were parked outside. Two men were loading items, including packs of cold drinks, into a white van. The journalist pulled over, put on her hazard lights and ran to the area to take several photos. After she got back into her car and drove for about 700m, a police vehicle tried to flag her down.
“I told them I was a journalist and they said that they had no proof of it and then I showed them my press card. Then they said either way I am not allowed to take pictures because I did not ask permission, and that I can’t just show up at a scene and take photos and leave.” Another officer told Raborife they wanted to see the photos. He held on to her press card and took her cellphone. Then they said they had to take her to their station commander. She told them she was running late for work, and asked if she could use her phone to inform her bosses. They said no. Raborife offered to delete the photographs and to call her boss, but the officers insisted she accompany them to the Dobsonville police station. On the way there the officers stopped and told her that going to the police station would take a long time, but if she deleted the pictures they would let her go. “I told them that it was a open place, a neutral zone and a public area and the cop insisted that I was not allowed to take pictures there and ‘leak them to the public’”. They gave her back her phone and press card after she deleted the photographs. An officer took down Raborife’s details while another officer took a photo of her car.
Sapa editor Mark van der Velden said the reporter identified herself with a press card and while the police were in a police van, they were in plain clothes and did not identify themselves as required. “On the facts available so far, this amounts to grossly unprofessional and unprocedural behaviour by police officers who clearly knowingly went out of their way to intimidate a working journalist to suppress public interest information on a very topical news story on xenophobia.
“Well-known standing orders for any police dealing with media specifically prohibits forcing them to delete photos, and they know this very well,” he said. Van der Velden said this was another incident of police officers ignoring firm standing orders from their own commanders because they get away with it. Sapa through the SA National Editors’ Forum, lodged a formal complaint with the police commissioner’s office and will follow up with enquiries as to what action was taken, he said.
“What happened is unfortunate,” Gauteng police spokesman Lieutenant Kay Makhubela said. “Let her open a case so we can investigate. I don’t think it’s necessary to delete the photographs because the reporter was doing her job,” he said. “A journalist must ask permission when they arrive at a crime scene. For now she must open a case because an allegation is an allegation. If she opens a case, it is based on the case not a rumour.”
In all of this, who is the casualty? BDS SA initiated a campaign to boycott Woolworths over its trade relations with Israel following the war in Gaza. Woolworths claims to “believe in the principle of responsible citizenship”. However, importing products from Israeli companies in violation of the international boycott of Israel called by the indigenous Palestinians contradicts this principle. Woolworths sources products and produce amounting to ZAR12 million from Israeli companies in violation of the international BDS consumer boycott. Almost all of Israel’s agricultural companies have illegal operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Boycott Woolworths Campaign unites the National Coalition for Palestine, BDS South Africa, South Africa’s largest trade union federation COSATU, the ANC Youth League, the Muslim Judicial Council and various other organisations. Since last August, the coalition holds national days of action the last Saturday of each month, which have received widespread media coverage. Having the Polices’ Tactical Response Unit harass a reporter covering the monthly protest is highly suspicious in itself.