New York, December 16, 2011--South African authorities announced on Thursday the launch of a criminal probe against international news agencies The Associated Press and Reuters for installing cameras outside the home of anti-Apartheid figure Nelson Mandela, according to news reports.
Invoking the National Key Points Act, an Apartheid-era law designed to curb reporting of areas deemed sensitive, authorities described the presence of the cameras as a breach of Mandela's privacy and the law and launched a criminal investigation into the news organizations, news reports said. The 1980 law, created to protect buildings or landmarks that the then-ruling National Party feared could be the target of anti-Apartheid protests and media coverage, carries a prison sentence of up to three years and/or a fine of 10,000 rand (US$1,192) for anyone who "furnishes in any manner whatsoever any information" either on security measures or "in respect of any incident" occurring at a national key point without government permission, CPJ research shows.
"It is ironic that the South African police, under the government that fought against Apartheid, have invoked an obscure and repressive relic of that era in the name of protecting Apartheid's most famous victim," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "We call on the authorities to drop investigations that criminalize legitimate newsgathering activities that neither invade privacy nor endanger the security of Nelson Mandela. The National Key Points Act, in its current form, is an affront to the democratic constitution modeled by Mandela."
Earlier this week, police searched a house in Qunu village in eastern South Africa and removed cameras pointed at the home of Mandela, the 93-year-old anti-Apartheid icon whose health has been the subject of intense media interest, the weekly Sunday Times reported on Thursday. The Times quoted the house's owner, Chieftainess Nokwanele Balizulu, as saying that she had authorized AP and Reuters to install the cameras as far back as six years ago. Local journalists who have covered Mandela's activities for years told CPJ that they only just learned on Thursday that his residence was a national key point.
"In South Africa, all the houses of presidents are declared national key points, and there's a law which covers national key points in the country, which is called the National Key Points Act. In terms of the act, any person who films or photographs a national key point can be held in contravention of that law," South African National Police Spokesman Vishnu Naidoo told the BBC on Thursday. "We are in the process of investigating these cases. We have so far discovered that these cameras belong to at least two media houses, but once we finalize those investigations, we will talk to our national prosecuting authority to determine a way forward," he said. According to him, the cameras were "constantly on ... suggesting that the house was being filmed and monitored throughout," a claim rejected by AP.
In a statement sent to CPJ, AP Director of Media Relations Paul Colford declared that "one camera ... was positioned some time ago, with the knowledge of authorities. According to Colford, "it was part of the customary preparedness that AP and other large news organizations make in the event of a major news story involving a world leader." In a separate press statement, Reuters Public Relations Manager Joanne Crosby said, "We did have a camera, and it has been removed."
South African authorities have launched criminal probes against at least four leading South African investigative reporters in recent months in response to their coverage of the government, according to CPJ research. High-ranking South African officials have been mired in high-profile scandals of corruption and misconduct that have been widely covered by the media.