Booted out, herded about — the media’s had a tough week at Qunu

2013-12-14 00:00

WITNESS reporters are camping at a construction site in order to cover the state funeral at Qunu — and we’re told we’re lucky to have a roof at all.

In a surreal week for media, some 4 000 local and international journalists have had to rely on word-of-mouth, subterfuge, charity and luck to secure information, accreditation and accommodation around the rural Eastern Cape site.

Yesterday, days of confusion — generated by often piecemeal guidelines from the government’s communication service and a startling crackdown by police — exploded into bedlam at a media logistics briefing at Qunu.

A police colonel revealed that the N2 highway between Qunu and Mthatha, where most reporters are staying, would be closed to traffic from 9pm last night, and appeared to suggest that reporters would be trapped in Mthatha, and blocked from even getting to the media centre today or tomorrow.

One reporter summed up the gasps of disbelief by standing to ask: “Are you saying we must [sleep here at the media centre] for the next two nights if we want to be here at all?”

More than 100 journalists then bellowed in raucous relief when the colonel said: “of course everyone who is accredited to the event can access the media centre”.

This followed an equally bizarre, but real shock on Wednesday afternoon, when Witness reporters and a dozen others were suddenly blocked from entering the village of Qunu simply to get to the rooms we had already rented from hosts.

Despite being offered proof that we were legally staying in Qunu — having undertaken contracts with local landlords — three traffic police officers stated that journalists, alone, were barred from entering the town based on “new orders”.

When colleagues from sister newspaper Beeld asked if they could at least retrieve their clothes, the police first asked them to surrender their cameras and cellphones — only to then refuse them entry anyway.

Huddled in freezing rain, we pointed out that the ban violated at least three principles of the Constitution — within sight of the funeral of the document’s chief architect — but the ban remained in place last night.

Collins Chabane, minister in the presidency, suggested the move was prompted by reporters “violating protocols”, but could neither specify the violations, nor explain why members of one profession had been denied the right to walk the streets of a South African town.

With formal accommodation being offered for as much as R2 500 per person per night around Mthatha, the only affordable solution we found was for seven journalists from Media24 to rent a half-built house near Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha.

When we first arrived, cold wind was blowing through gaping doorways and unfinished walls at the large, empty house.

However, within hours, the landlord’s construction crew somehow made two of the rooms into shelters, attaching doors, installing beds and taping windows at lightning speed.

Journalists at a lodge down the road arranged for us to use shower and toilet facilities there.

But plans for a communal meal were scuppered when it was discovered that meat and dairy brought in cooler bags for the trip had gone off overnight , and apples, droe wors and oranges became our stables for breakfast and lunch.

Although the official media centre is based at a large white marquee on the hilltop grounds of the Nelson Mandela Museum, in Upper Qunu, an unofficial headquarters for information swopping and story planning has developed at an Mthatha restaurant, Mike’s Kitchen.

The place is packed nightly with large teams from everywhere from the BBC to Associated Press and public relations people representing Archbishop Desmond Tutu — and the restaurant has responded by issuing Mandela tribute T-shirts to all their staff.

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