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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

If you have a phone, this is how government spies on you

Ramaphosa has been urged to 'move with speed' in starting legislative reforms to curb abuse of surveillance by spooks.

South Africa is under siege from intelligence operatives who spy on journalists, political activists and whistleblowers with impunity, a panel discussion to launch Right2Know’s latest report on surveillance heard yesterday.

Leading the discussions during the official release of the report entitled Spooked, Right2Know’s Murray Hunter, SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) chairperson Mahlatse Mahlase and SOS Coalition’s Duduetsang Makuse called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to “move with speed” in ushering in legislative reforms to curb the abuse of surveillance by spooks.

At the centre of surveillance is Rica legislation that compels everyone to register personal details before purchasing a cellphone.

“Members of the public should know that when they registered under Rica they have been robbed of being anonymous, and mobile network service providers store their information for quite some time,” warned Hunter, pointing to weaknesses in the system.

“When they want to put you under surveillance, they lie to the Rica judge that you are a criminal, then the judge easily signs the warrant, unwittingly authorising intelligence operatives to put you under surveillance.”

Hunter said “not nearly enough people were arrested” in either government or private intelligence for illegal acts of putting people under surveillance.

“It is against this background that amaBhungane (an investigative journalism unit) has launched a Constitutional Court challenge on Rica, and Right2Know will be a friend of the court. This law is unconstitutional.”

Mahlase said Sanef was “not surprised” by the findings contained in the report because there were many journalists who had been complaining about being spied on by state intelligence.

Said Mahlase: “We think that there are more undocumented cases of journalists who have been put under surveillance. It is a serious threat to media freedom and the right of the public to know. It is journalists who have uncovered corruption who are being put under pressure of surveillance.”

She called for society to “rise up and push for legislative reforms”.

“Imagine what will happen when whistleblowers are afraid of coming to journalists with information because of lack of protection.

“Whistleblowers should be commended for being brave to come up with information whenever there is corruption. They have helped in redirecting the course of events in the country.”

Makuse expressed concern the South African government was not a signatory to the United Nations declaration on press freedom.

“We have a vibrant media but if you look at the report, you’ll be concerned at the country’s decline in the press freedom index.

“With elections coming up we need to subject those running for public office to more scrutiny. Lack of transparency got us to where we are today.

“Corruption in this country is not something of today. It has been building up over years. We need a more vigilant media and society. South Africa needs a people’s power campaign to push for legislative reforms to the law governing surveillance.”

The report, which contains a set of recommendations, is to be distributed to key stakeholders throughout the country and to government for response.

You can read it here.


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