Signal jammer gags House

13 February 2015 - 03:17 By Katharine Child, Bianca Capazorio and Graeme Hosken
FREE SPEECH: Journalists protest at being cut off from electronic communications in the National Assembly during the State of the Nation speech
FREE SPEECH: Journalists protest at being cut off from electronic communications in the National Assembly during the State of the Nation speech

Electronic communication from parliament was cut for several hours yesterday ahead of the State of the Nation speech.

A signal scrambler, said to belong to the military, was found in the press gallery at the National Assembly.

The device prevented journalists, MPs and the public from making cellphone calls or tweeting from the parliamentary precinct.

Inside the chamber, journalists chanted "Bring back our signal" and were soon joined by DA and EFF members of parliament. Even ANC Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor joined in, waving her phone in the air.

Before the session began the opposition argued that the blocking of the cellular signal was a gross violation of the rules of parliament and of the constitutional right to free speech.

DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane threatened to take parliament to court if the jamming device were not switched off.

"If it is not, we will ensure parliament does not proceed," he said.

Speaker Baleka Mbete said: "We will make sure that the secretary of parliament follows up."

But EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu asked that the session be suspended until the matter was sorted out.

It was only after Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was seen handing a note to State Security Minister David Mahlobo that the matter was resolved.

Right to Know spokesman Murray Hunter said it was unjustifiable that parliament's cellphone signal would be deliberately blocked to prevent tweeting, e-mailing and phone calls by journalists and others.

He said "parliament was legally and constitutionally obliged to embody openness.

"This action speaks to the paranoia over fears that the president will be embarrassed.

"The public interest is being undermined. I can't imagine any circumstances that could justify such an action [blocking cellphone signals]."

He said "the cutting of the parliamentary TV feed late last year was the first sign that a more severe heavy-handed security was being applied to parliament.

"Information coming out of parliament is being controlled strategically as a response to a political problem."

William Bird, of Media Monitoring Africa, said: "Parliament is the epitome of our democratic space.

"You don't get anything that more represents democracy than the parliamentary space.

"That space should have as much freedom of expression as could possibly happen."

He said the "low life" who installed the jammer(s) should be charged with treason.

Parliamentary spokesman Luzuko Jacobs said he did not know who had installed the signal jammer in parliament.

The police and military were also unable to provide answers, both saying they had no knowledge of the device.