Secret state of the nation

2014-10-03 00:00

THE biggest threat to journalism today — in a climate of much vaunted press freedom — are the prying eyes and ears of our often wayward intelligence agencies.

The simple cellphone, seamlessly integrated into the way we work, has to be acknowledged as a liability, being cognisant of how easy it is for a range of spy agencies to listen in.

This is especially true for those newsmen and women who fearlessly push the envelope and probe those who sit in the highest offices.

The ease at which these agencies purloin itemised billing, intercept calls and even pinpoint your location places whistle-blowers, who bravely volunteer information, in jeopardy.

As journalists, we need to do what we can to protect these people. That is our charge if we are to maintain some semblance of a free press in this country.

My viewpoint is informed by my own experience dealing with jittery contacts, and at times I feel like speaking in code, meeting at secret locations and abandoning use of any telephone, borders on paranoia.

But it is amplified by a report tabled earlier this year by advocacy lobby Right2Know titled Secret State of the Nation.

It provides a chilling insight into how important information is kept from public (and by that virtue, press) scrutiny.

In this vein of subterfuge and spy games, the report highlights what appears to be the flagrant abuse of crime intelligence to intercept phone calls.

“The number of authorisations to intercept users’ communications more than doubled between 2008 and 2011, an increase of more than 170%.

“The number then drops sharply again, which may mean some interception is happening without the authorisation of a judge,” it reads.

The report also reveals that in a three-year period, over three million “interceptions” were made, while only 882 warrants were issued.

“So each warrant may represent thousands of interceptions, or surveillance is happening without a warrant.”

It is frightening what these agencies are capable of.

Sunday Times journalists Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter found themselves on the receiving end of this state-sponsored treatment when their phones were tapped in 2011.

The police’s version of how the interceptions were authorised borders on the ridiculous, considering that at the time, they had exposed the scandalous police lease deal, which eventually saw erstwhile Police Commissioner Bheki Cele sacked.

When it emerged that their calls had been tapped by Crime Intelligence Unit operatives, the police launched what seemed to be a ceremonial investigation.

In affidavits, officers claimed that they had accidentally included the cell numbers of journalists in a batch of numbers belonging to men suspected of defrauding a furniture shop on the South Coast.

If they are to be believed, they were shocked when they realised their “error”.

This should be a case study and serve as a warning for every journalist who decides to take on those in power.

Invariably, in my opinion, the arms of the state will be used in an effort to manacle you.

This topic has been thrust to the fore in my mind in recent weeks, during my coverage of what may amount to the biggest police cover-up in our new dispensation.

KZN Hawks head Johan Booysen, who was effectively pushed out of office by police brass with questionable allegiances, has been fighting relentlessly for his job.

This fearless policeman has had everything thrown at him, yet he continues to land blow after blow on the glass jaw that is the police’s argument.

In compiling a series of these stories, it has taken me to confidential sources within the ranks of police and intelligence services, who know the spook trade craft all too well.

In my own instance, talking on the phone has become a thing of the past. WhatsApp is the only form of communication because it can’t be traced, and messages are deleted after they are received.

We talk in code, using vague references to hidden coffee shops and parking lots, because all interaction is now face to face.

One intelligence source even makes me remove the battery from my cellphone for fear that we may be tracked.

What the police won’t tell you is they have a little gadget called a “grabber”, which is able to pinpoint the position of a cellphone to within metres.

I can’t blame these men and women for being paranoid.

What I will do is applaud their bravery, and commit to exposing that which has no place being hidden.

The shield of good journalism based on integrity is all we have left, and we will continue to hold it up.

• Jeff Wicks is a reporter at The Witness.

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