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Cops should stick to their code

When sentencing two police officers found guilty of assaulting a journalist, a Pretoria magistrate described the men as a disgrace and examples of why the community views the police as bullies instead of the protectors of society.

Tshepo Marerathi and Thapelo Moganedi were found guilty earlier this year of assaulting Pretoria News photographer Masi Losi. On Wednesday, 17 October they were slapped with a R10 000 fine or 18 months in jail.

Losi - a lensman with a decade of experience - was taking pictures of the officers outside the newspaper's office in Vermuelen Street, as they arrested an alleged thief who was being pursued by a mob.

After loading the suspect into their van, they turned their attention to Losi. They told him he was not allowed to take pictures, they grabbed his camera and wrestled him to the ground in an attempt to subdue him.

Thankfully, Losi's colleagues were watching and taking pictures of the fracas from the offices above - key evidence in the subsequent assault trial.

Masi managed to escape from the pair and holed himself up inside the Pretoria News building until senior police were informed of the incident.

The police fired Marerathi and Moganedi in February - they are appealing the decision on the basis that they firmly believe that they were doing their jobs.

And there is the problem.

At the beginning of September on a Saturday morning I had a run-in with Garsfontein police at a scene along Atterbury Road in Pretoria.

Dozens of police had done a superb job at chasing and arresting a suspect - shots were fired, police vehicles damaged but the man was eventually boxed-in at a filling station where quite a scene had been created.

I arrived a short while later and immediately started taking photos, but was met with shouts from a constable asking what I was doing.

After identifying myself, the constable said I needed to ask the police for permission to take photographs - a belief among many police which can be best described as a myth.

My trouble started when I told the cop I did not need their permission to do my job and I continued taking pictures.

I was questioned by at least six different officers, my phone was seized and warned that I faced arrest. Every single cop I engaged with believed that the media needs their permission to operate, much like the pair who assaulted Losi.

I was eventually allowed to leave, but not before I had to provide all my particulars and the cops took down my vehicle particulars - clear intimidation. I have opened an official complaint.

The conduct of the police in relation to the media is clearly set out in the police's Standing Order 156: Media Communication in the SAPS.

The order was created to "balance the constitutional right to freedom of expression with the constitutional obligation on the (SA Police) Service to achieve certain objectives, and at the same time, to comply with the obligation to determine a policy on how employees must communicate in the media".

Knowledge of and understanding of this order - which goes a long way to harnessing the media as a constructive means to communicate with the public - is sorely lacking within the ranks.

Section 10 of the order states a police officer "must treat all media representatives with courtesy, dignity and respect, even when provoked, and promote ethical communication with the media".

It goes on to say, "A member at a crime scene or performing duties in public, must conduct himself or herself with dignity in keeping with the seriousness of the occasion, incident or investigation. A member must never lose sight of the possibility that a sound or visual recording could be taking place".

This probably explains why police illegally demand journalists to ask permission to take pictures of them - to ensure they don't get caught doing what they're not supposed to be doing.

Sub-section 3 (b) is also very important for every police officer to understand:

(b) A media representative who conducts himself or herself in a manner that may disturb evidence on a crime scene or may hinder or obstruct a member in the exercise of his or powers or the performance of his or her duties or functions in a cordoned-off area, must be courteously requested to leave the crime scene or cordoned-off area. If the media representative refuses, he or she must be escorted out of the restricted area.

(c) A media representative may under no circumstances be verbally or physically abused and cameras or other equipment may not be seized unless such camera or equipment may be seized as an exhibit in terms of any law. Under no circumstances whatsoever, may a member wilfully damage the camera, film, recording or other equipment of a media representative.

Section 17 of the order relates to "Prohibition on publication of photographs or sketches of certain persons in custody:

(a) According to section 69 of the South African Police Service Act, 1995, nobody may, without the written permission of the National Commissioner or a provincial commissioner, publish a photograph or sketch of a person who is -

(i) suspected of having committed an offence and who is in custody pending a decision to institute criminal proceedings against him or her;

(ii) in custody pending the commencement of criminal proceedings in which he or she is an accused; or

(iii) may reasonably be expected to be a witness in criminal proceedings and who is in custody pending the commencement of his or her testimony in such proceedings.

But section C of this section explains the Act clearly, in that "Section 69 prohibits the publication of a photograph or sketch without written permission, but does not prohibit the taking of a photograph or making of a sketch of such person".

Simply put - a police officer may not prevent a journalist from taking pictures, let alone demand that permission be asked to do so.

It's optimistic to expect every police officer to be familiar with this document, but it is vital that every journalist is. Media representatives must understand their rights and know their limits when dealing with the police.

When confronted with belligerent police officers who impose arbitrary and unconstitutional demands, a journalist should stand up to them and not back down.

It is comforting to know that if things do go wrong, police management and the law will come down hard on those responsible as in the case of Masi Losi.

Barry Bateman is an Eyewitness News reporter. Follow him on Twitter @BarryBateman.

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