Demonstrators are seen outside a shopping center in Durban, South Africa, on July 12, 2021. Protesters and looters recently attacked four radio stations in the country and harassed, attacked, and threatened journalists. (AP/Andre Swart)

South African journalists attacked and threatened amid civil unrest, 4 radio stations looted

Lusaka, Zambia, July 13, 2021 – South African authorities must swiftly and thoroughly investigate recent attacks on media outlets and journalists covering civil unrest in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since July 4, protests have broken out in at least two provinces, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which began over the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma but have spiraled into general looting and rioting, according to news reports.

Demonstrators and looters attacked at least four community radio stations overnight and today and have robbed and assaulted journalists covering the unrest over the past 10 days, according to news reports and journalists who spoke with CPJ.

“The rioting and civil unrest in South Africa is the country’s biggest news story, and the media must be free to cover it without fear of assault so the public can remain informed at such a crucial time,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “Even while they are engaged in stopping rioting and looting, law enforcement agencies cannot turn a blind eye to how journalists are being attacked and threatened while doing their jobs, and must ensure that those who do so are held to account.”

Late last night and early this morning, unidentified people attacked at least four radio stations throughout the country, ransacking their offices and forcing them off the air, according to news reports, statements by the outlets, journalists who spoke with CPJ, and a statement by the South African National Editors’ Forum, an industry body of editors and senior journalists.

Those outlets include:

  • Alex FM, in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg
  • Mams Radio, In Mamelodi, northeast of Pretoria
  • West Side FM, in Kagiso, west of Johannesburg
  • Intokozo FM, in Durban

Alex FM station manager Takalane Nemangowe told the CPJ via messaging app that the attackers vandalized the station and “stripped the radio station of everything and only left papers.” He said that a presenter and a security guard who were in the building at the time were able to escape unharmed.

Nemangowe added that a supporter in Alexandra had offered his home for the station’s use, and he hoped it would return to the air tomorrow.

Unidentified people vandalized Mams Radio’s transmitter, studios, and offices, and stole equipment from the station, according to a statement by the outlet, reviewed by CPJ, and news reports. The station wrote that it was “off air until further notice” and said that police were investigating the attack.

West Side FM CEO Goodhope Ledwaba told EyeWitness News that looters had broken the doors and windows of the station’s office and stolen broadcasting equipment, including computers.

Intokozo FM posted photos on its Facebook page showing vandalism in its studio; the station, which normally broadcasts live on its Facebook page, has not posted any updates since those photos.

Separately, on July 3, in the town of Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal province, a member of the ruling African National Congress Party’s Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association interrupted Samkele Maseko, a political reporter for the public broadcaster SABC, while he was broadcasting coverage of a rally in support of former President Zuma, according to news reports, video of that broadcast, and another statement by the editors’ forum.

An unidentified man in camouflage is seen in that video blocking the camera that was filming Maseko’s broadcast and shoving it to the ground.

Also that day, Edward Zuma, the former president’s eldest son, threatened to burn one of the vehicles belonging to 24-hour news channel eNCA parked outside his father’s home, according to those sources.

The following day, an unidentified Zuma supporter attacked Maseko while he was reporting outside Zuma’s home, according to those reports and the forum’s statement.

The attacker accused Maseko of being a “sell-out” and of trying to destroy party leaders of the African National Congress, and slapped the journalist and tried to choke him, according to those sources. Sbu Ngalwa, the chairperson of the editors’ forum, broke up the attack and pulled Maseko to safety, the forum statement said.

Maseko declined to speak to CPJ, saying that his employer was pursuing the matter. Phathiswa Magopeni, SABC’s group executive of news and current affairs, did not respond to calls and several messages via messaging app for comment.

On July 11, unidentified people robbed an SABC news crew of their equipment while they were covering protests in Alexandra, according to the editors’ forum and news reports, including a report by SABC.

Also that day, unidentified people in the Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow damaged a camera and vehicle belonging to a news team from the privately owned television channel Newzroom Afrika, according to those sources.

Newzroom Afrika news director Katy Katopodis told CPJ via messaging app that looters broke the vehicle’s windows and attempted to break into the car, branded with the station’s logo, and steal its radio and equipment in its trunk. She said the news team was not in the vehicle at the time, and watched as people attempted to break into it; she said that one person fired a bullet through the driver’s side door.

The reporting team recovered the vehicle later that day and were able to drive it back to the station, Katopodis said, adding that none of the journalists had been injured in the incident.

Newzroom Afrika had not lodged a complaint with police, Katopodis said, as “police have their hands full right now, and we will do that once everything has settled down.”

Also on July 11, demonstrators in KwaZulu-Natal threw rocks at an SABC vehicle while journalists were documenting looting in the area, according to SABC reporter Jayde-Leigh Paulse, who was at the scene and spoke to CPJ via messaging app. She said no journalist was injured by the rocks, and that her employer had supplied her team with helmets and bulletproof vests.

“We put the fear aside and keep the cameras rolling as journalists,” she said.

Separately on July 11, in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, a protester threatened News 24 reporter Jeff Wicks, saying “you will die today,” Wicks told CPJ via messaging app.

He said that the demonstrators had sticks and stones but did not physically attack him; Wicks added that he believed looters had threatened members of the press because they were filming their wrongdoing.

National police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo did not reply to multiple requests for comment sent by CPJ via messaging app He told News 24 that every situation would be assessed and dealt with on its own merit.

For advice on covering civil unrest safely, see CPJ’s Physical safety: Civil Disorder safety notes.