On Friday 6 May, the Pretoria Specialised Commercial Crimes Court will hear a case relating to the surveillance of journalists. A former Crime Intelligence official is accused of giving false information to a judge in order to spy on the phone communication of two Sunday Times journalists, Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter. This is the first known case of surveillance of journalists to come to court in post democratic South Africa.
An R2K delegation will be outside the court in solidarity and to highlight our demands to end surveillance abuses in South Africa.
Background to the case
It is already a matter of public record that officials in the police’s Crime Intelligence Division tapped the phones of wa Afrika and Hofstatter in 2010.
It has since emerged that officials secured a warrant to monitor their phone numbers by lying to the RICA judge, matching the journalists’ phone numbers with fictional names in their affidavit and suggesting that the warrant was needed to investigate a criminal syndicate.
As a result, a warrant was issued to collect wa Afrika and Hofstatter’s metadata – a record of who they called and exchanged messages with, and their locations.
This would be a serious violation of their rights as journalists and would potentially expose the identities of their sources.
The decision to bug wa Afrika and Hoftstatter’s phones was evidently part of a campaign to target journalists who were viewed as “threats” to the police. R2K welcomes the fact that this matter is being prosecuted, although the fact that only one official now faces charges, when the circumstances suggest more senior officials would also have been involved, is a cause of concern.
Why we need to fix RICA and end surveillance abuses
This case comes two weeks after R2K launched a campaign to end surveillance abuses. It is not the only documented case of surveillance of investigative journalists: it has recently emerged that amaBhungane journalist Sam Sole had his phone tapped while he was reporting on the investigation of corruption charges against Jacob Zuma.
The Sunday Times matter also bears similarities to an unfolding case in the Bellville Commercial Crimes Court, where suspended Crime Intelligence official Paul Scheepers faces similar charges – of fraudulently getting warrants from a magistrate to collect the phone records of senior lawyers, police officials, and others.
These are a clear reminder of why we need to fix RICA, South Africa’s main surveillance law. Only through urgent reforms can we prevent these abuses from happening in the first place.
- The low threshold for issuing a warrant allows rogue cops to mislead judges when requesting a warrant, and it has also been reported that intelligence structures can intercept communications without getting a warrant.
- The fact that RICA forbids users from being notified when their communications are intercepted means that when these abuses happen, the victims have no way of ever finding out about them. (wa Afrika and Hofstatter were warned by sources that they had been bugged.)
- The fact that RICA requires everyone to register their identity to a SIM card makes it almost impossible for citizens to communicate anonymously. With mounting evidence of surveillance abuses, it is absolutely necessary for journalists for example to be able to speak to confidential sources without compromising their identity.
A full memorandum of demands to fix RICA and end surveillance abuses has been tabled with the Ministry of Justice & Constitutional Development – see www.r2k.org.za/?p=6542
STOP SPYING ON US!
Note to editors:
The accused is a former official of the SAPS Crime Intelligence Division, who faces charges of contravening s51(1)(a)(vi) of RICA (the Regulation of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act).
The case number is 111/261/2013, at the Pretoria Specialised Commercial Crimes Court.