One moment Free State journalist Paul Nthoba was snapping a picture of police officers on patrol near the Caledon River, separating South Africa and Lesotho, and the next he was allegedly being beaten for taking the picture.
Nthoba, who is the editor of the Mohokare News, named after the Sesotho word for the Caledon River, told News24 after this happened, he went to the police station in Ficksburg to lay a charge of assault against the officers. He said at the station he was threatened with a Disaster Management Act infraction.
The journalist said he was at the river on Friday because some locals had complained that policing in the area was too slack.
He said that he is known in the area, and when he saw the officers he thought: “Oh look, that’s a nice shot – there are policemen.”
He took the picture, planning ahead to include it in an article.
“I was going to ask them, ‘how are you doing?’,” he said.
However, he said one of the police officers responded with a deeply offensive swear word, and the tone changed as he told him he felt insulted.
Another officer, who Nthoba regarded as the senior among them, allegedly instructed his colleagues to assault Nthoba.
“That’s when I realised I was going to get a hiding,” he said.
He said it happened too quickly to take a video, but he does have audio of the alleged incident. They allegedly beat him and left him. Nthoba said he then went to the police station to lay a complaint of assault against them.
While he was there, Nthoba said, he tried to take a picture when other officers entered. Nthoba said they objected to this. He claimed he was dragged to a police cell and told he would be charged under the Disaster Management Act.
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate spokesperson Sontaga Seisa confirmed that a journalist had laid a complaint of assault, but added that police had laid a counter-complaint, alleging he did not have a permit to be out. These will be investigated.
Nthoba said he had a permit, but was never asked for it during any of the exchanges.
Ultimately, a case of allegedly obstructing the police in carrying out their duties was opened against him.
Nthoba said he had to go to hospital to be seen to, did not sleep well on Friday night and was still shaken up by the whole experience.
The SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) said it had a recording of the altercation and was very disturbed by it.
“Sanef is deeply concerned to hear about this abuse out in the field – but also, even more worryingly, at the police station, the very place where Nthoba had sought refuge and to hold the police officers accountable.”
Sanef notes that community media platforms present critical local alternatives to mainstream print and broadcasting. We believe that they play an important role in diversifying the media, profiling local voices, reflecting local struggles, and building communities by holding local authorities to account.
“We believe that journalists and the media at this level often experience more abuse than affluent, often more high-profile mainstream media – we thus must ensure their protection.
“We believe that [SA Police Service] leadership – and the leadership of all security authorities – should apply a zero-tolerance policy against all forms of harassment towards all our media.”
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