Investigations into Water and Sanitation dept: Journos kicked out of committee meeting

2018-10-17 18:16
A member of the parliamentary protection services in the meeting of Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation before journalists were asked to leave. (Jan Gerber/ News24)

A member of the parliamentary protection services in the meeting of Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation before journalists were asked to leave. (Jan Gerber/ News24)

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The Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation decided to keep presentations on investigations into the Department of Water and Sanitation by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Hawks and National Prosecuting Authority secret by barring members of the media from the meeting.

At about 14:30, about 16 parliamentary reporters left the committee room under protest, with about 16 members of the parliamentary protection services - also known as the white shirts or bouncers - either inside or outside the committee room.

"We are trying not to be a demo-crazy," committee chairperson Lulu Johnson said as the journalists left the room quietly. 

The meeting started at about 09:30, with the committee discussing its Budgetary Review and Recommendation Report (BRRR) on the department.

Johnson indicated that the latter part of the meeting would be closed. This was not indicated on the list of committee meetings circulated, or the Z-list as it is known in parliamentary parlance.

READ: Water fight over R322m overspend

Sometime later, he started laughing, and in explaining his laughter to the committee, he said information has been passed to him that the "media is running amok" and will try to "barge" into the later meeting.

Still chuckling, he said the sergeant at arms and the protection services would be called.

When the committee broke for lunch shortly after 13:30, he said the meeting would be closed when it resumed. 

"We cannot expect those investigated to hear they're being investigated," he explained.

Parliament's rules

During the lunch break, members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association's (PGA) executive committee spoke to Johnson. Earlier in the day they had engaged House chairperson Cedric Frolick.

READ: Some water and sanitation officials wear R20k shoes, while SAns don't have water - parliamentary committee hears

The members of the PGA attending the meeting agreed - in at least one case grudgingly - to leave if the meeting was closed, in order to comply with Parliament's rules.

When proceedings got underway at 14:00, Johnson said he requested in writing that the meeting be closed on November 11 and got a response signed by Frolick that the committee must first make a resolution to that effect.

He read the applicable rules of the National Assembly and said given the nature of the issues the committee was dealing with, the committee meeting should be closed.

"In the context of anyone out there who shall be investigated, that person shall be prejudiced," he said. 

He said the committee had not received the presentations before the meeting, as was the usual case.

ANC MPs supported closing the meeting.

DA MP Leon Basson said they did not know what information would be presented, so they could not pre-empt and close the meeting.

IFP MP Russel Cebekhulu suggested the committee discuss the closure of the meeting without the media present. 

Basson then suggested that they hear from the agencies whether the meeting should be closed.

Each of the entities said it should be closed.

"There are some outcomes that have not been made public yet or are not in court yet," said SIU head Andy Mothibi. He said in the interest of safeguarding the SIU or any parties from legal risk, the meeting should be closed. 

The Hawks and NPA agreed, with the NPA saying it would impinge on the sub judice rule.

Johnson said it was in the committee's "best interest" to have the meeting behind closed doors.

He also warned members of the committee to respect their oath of office and not make the information public.

Meanwhile, DA chief whip John Steenhuisen sent an urgent letter to National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete.

"No evidence has been presented to classify the subject matter of the committee necessary for a closed session, of a private nature, protected under parliamentary privilege or law, or confidential in terms of the law or other reasons," wrote Steenhuisen.

"Further, the chief whips of political parties were never informed that this decision had been taken.

"It is therefore held, that this committee will violate the constitutional rights of the public and the media in being able to hold Parliament, the executive, officials and Chapter 9 institutions accountable."

Steenhuisen asked that Mbete immediately intervene and halt the proceedings of the committee and allow the public and media to attend the meeting.

"Further, I request that you confirm that committee meetings may not be closed to the public or media without reasonable and justifiable reasons in an open and democratic society."

The Department of Water and Sanitation has been drowning in allegations of graft for several years now, especially during the reign of its former minister Nomvula Mokonyane, currently minister of communications.

Investigation

The SIU was to report on all its investigations into the department.

The most recent investigation follows President Cyril Ramaphosa's proclamation that the SIU investigate the procurement or contracting of information technology services from the German enterprise software company SAP.

Entities often update committees, notably the Portfolio Committee on Police and the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, on ongoing investigations.

These meetings are hardly, if ever, closed.

The PGA expressed its dissatisfaction with the arbitrariness of the decision to close the meeting, that MPs voted to close the meeting despite not being aware what information would be presented to them, as well as the presence of the security services.

The association will write a letter to Mbete and raise the matter with the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef).

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Read more on:    da  |  anc  |  ifp  |  media freedom  |  parliament 2018

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