Security at the ready as journalists ejected from water and sanitation meeting
Parliament's security was ready to pounce as journalists who were attending a parliamentary meeting to detail investigations into the embattled water and sanitation department - which is broke and received a qualified audit opinion from the auditor general – were asked to leave.
Journalists were shown the door as ANC MPs and heads of the Special Investigating Unit‚ Hawks and National Prosecuting Authority claimed the meeting would discuss sensitive information which‚ if published‚ may be prejudicial to people who are being investigated for alleged corruption in the department.
As journalists peacefully left the venue ahead of the discussions‚ committee chairperson Lulu Johnson [ANC] commented that: “We are avoiding to be a democracy country‚ we'd rather be democratic all the time‚ all the way!”
When asked to leave the meeting‚ journalists immediately got up and headed for the exit. However‚ in an unprecedented situation‚ several parliamentary bouncers were waiting outside the committee room.
Johnson had earlier informed the meeting that he had written to the Speaker of the National Assembly‚ Baleka Mbete‚ last Thursday requesting permission to hold the meeting behind closed doors. The permission was granted the following day by the chairperson responsible for National Assembly committees‚ Cedric Frolic‚ he revealed.
A schedule of parliamentary meetings published on Tuesday afternoon did not reflect the meeting as closed to the media‚ which is a standard practice for closed meetings.
Johnson argued that the rules governing the National Assembly's committees provided for holding meetings behind closed doors when the committee was considering a matter of a private nature‚ that is prejudicial to a particular person‚ or protected under parliamentary privilege‚ or for any other reason privileged in terms of the law‚ or the matter was confidential in terms of legislation.
“Given the nature of the issues we are dealing with‚ which are very important and‚ I must also add‚ are equally very sensitive. When any investigation by any law enforcement agency happens‚ it clearly becomes a matter that is of concern and sensitivity in the context of anyone out there as the media reports anything that happens in Parliament.
“Anyone out there who shall be investigated that person obviously may be prejudiced against. Shall we have such a session as an open session? It is in that context that the application was submitted for this session to be held in a closed manner‚ for us to be able to thoroughly investigate and interrogate the issues concerned‚” he said.
To prove how sensitive the information was‚ Johnson said the entities had not sent any documents to the committee ahead of the meeting as is normally the practice in Parliament.
However‚ opposition MPs objected.
The DA's Leonard Basson argued that MPs were running ahead of themselves because they‚ too‚ were not aware what kind of information they would be receiving - and it was not clear on what basis were they making the call for the meeting to be closed.
“We will object to have a closed meeting without information that shows it would be necessary to have a closed meeting‚” he said.
He was supported by his DA colleague‚ Rainey Hugo.
ANC MP Derick Mnguni said the committee was hoping to get to the bottom of the all the issues that are under investigation and entities should be able to be free to disclose information‚ adding that individuals should not be tried in a court of public opinion. Three other ANC MPs agreed with him.
The Inkatha Freedom Party's Russel Nsikayezwe Cebekhulu differed with the ANC's stance‚ but suggested that heads of the law enforcement entities themselves state whether the information could not be shared in an open meeting.
Andy Mothibi‚ the head of the SIU‚ said they wanted to go into some granular detail about the matters before them‚ including outcomes in some of the cases which have not been made public and are not in a court of law yet‚ as well as names of people and of entities.
“So‚ in the interest of safeguarding the legal risk‚ attaching to the SIU or any of the parties that may be mentioned in the presentation‚ we are of the view that to avoid that legal risk is to have this session in a closed session‚” said Mothibi.
The Hawks' Yolisa Matakata followed suit‚ saying they also wanted the session closed to the media to avoid any legal repercussions that may affect the ongoing investigations.
“These matters are‚ in fact‚ under investigations and we are obliged not to reveal any information to the public space that is under investigation‚” said Malini Govender of the Hawks.
“Equally so‚ in respect of matters that are on court rolls‚ or anticipated to get on to court rolls‚ in those circumstances‚ those matters are regarded as sub judice. To start discussing the granular detail of those matters and have those matters reported upon‚ also may result in the violation of rights of other persons and we may need to guard against that‚” she added.
The parliamentary Press Gallery Association said it would be engaging parliament's leadership over the arbitrary closure of the meeting and the presence of parliament's security.
The PGA's secretary Paul Vecchiatto said the body was disappointed over the arbitrariness of MPs closing a meeting without knowing what information they will get.
“We believe this goes against the Constitution and a transparent and open democracy. We are also highly disappointed that‚ for whatever reason‚ they had parliamentary security to come along and their mere presence was to intimidate reporters to leave‚” said Vecchiatto.