By Hayley Axford
Shortly before President Jacob Zuma could deliver his State of the Nation Address (SONA) speech last week, journalists discovered that they could not file their stories as there was no cellphone reception within the National Assembly. Following claims that a signal jammer was used, many editors took to Twitter to voice their concerns and frustration, having to exit the building to be able to Tweet.
“All cellphone signals scrambled inside National Assembly. Media not able to tweet or report on #Sona2015. Sad day for media freedom.” – Beeld Editor, Adriaan Basson.
“Shocking: Parliament has scrambled all 3G and cell reception in the House.” – Report Editor, Waldimar Pelser.
“Please help us Sanef, FXI, Right2Know. There’s a jamming device in the parly chamber next to media bay. We can’t work at SONA 2015.” – Associate Editor at the Daily Maverick, Ranjeni Munusamy.
Opposition members insisted that proceedings could not continue without free access to frequency, chanting “bring back the signal”. Various sources claim that the signal was restored upon instruction from Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) believes that the signal jamming was part of an orchestrated strategy to prevent the public from following proceedings and the media from reporting on it. The jamming, which has been called “unprecedented” and “illegal”, was in contravention of media freedom and breached the constitutional right to freedom of information.
Although there are various ways of jamming signals, a general approach, known as DOS (Denial of Service) simply adds noise. One would first need to know the frequencies and modulation scheme of the signals that they intend on jamming. Following that, they would output noise of sufficient power to drown out that signal, which will render the cellphone unable to differentiate between what is signal and what is noise.
In 2002, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), prohibited the use of jamming devices by any individual or entity, deeming them illegal. Following calls by opposition parties and media bodies for ICASA to investigate the SONA signal jamming debacle, the communications authority has since clarified that only the country’s State Security Cluster may employ signal jammers, such as in cases where there is a threat to state security. ICASA is pleased that Parliament has said that it too will investigate this matter. ICT veteran, Adrian Scholfield is doubtful that the incident will ever be fully probed as he feels that ICASA continues to lack independence. Scholfield says, “It will get swept under the carpet, there won’t be a meaningful probe, and we’ll never find out who took the decision”.
Cabinet ministers have continued to downplay allegations that a signal jammer was used and said that they will call it a “technical glitch” until a full investigation is called upon by the Presidency and Parliament. National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete and National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chairperson Thandi Modise, have admitted that during a readiness briefing the day before SONA, they were told that “certain equipment” had been installed in Parliament as one of the measures to be implemented to protect the head of state. Both Mbete and Modise, however, have denied knowledge that one of the pieces of equipment installed was a signal scrambler.
While Cabinet has said that the media was never a target, the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) expressed disgust at the decision to cut off all communication signals from around the National Assembly chamber. The forum, along with political parties and organizations, believe it was a deliberate strategy to censor coverage of the State of the Nation Address, which infringes on the country’s democratic principles. The forum has said that the action “has resulted in Parliament being an island, divorced from the people it represents”.
SANEF, along with various media houses, is urgently seeking a court order that will prevent security agencies from unlawfully blocking communication signals to interfere with reporting. “We think it is a winnable case because the constitutional principles are very clear. The principles of openness, of transparency, of accountability are the principles that are entrenched in the Constitution and Parliament is enjoined by the Constitution to observe those principles”, says SANEF chairman, Mpumelelo Mkhabela. The forum also intends to challenge the refusal of the speaker’s office to give the media unedited footage of proceedings in Parliament and will appeal to the courts to compel Parliament to allow broadcast media to install their own cameras in the legislature. Mkhabela added that the signal blocking should not be mistakenly seen as merely a smoke sign of tension between the government and the media, but rather as a sad commentary that South Africa’s democracy is in decline.