When police officers are unaccountable and operate in a culture of impunity, it is vital that both professional journalists and ordinary members of the public are empowered to expose these abuses. Yet often those who do are harassed, intimidated, assaulted and wrongfully arrested after filming or taking photos of the police.
According to citizens right platform Polity, the police’s own regulations (Standing Order 156) state that police may not interfere with media representatives who are filming and photographing them. But while it is clear that this should include ordinary bystanders – who have the same rights as professional journalists, and often perform the same functions – the Standing Order is silent on the rights of non-professional journalists, or citizen journalists.
“While we reiterate that there is no legal basis to stop any person from photographing and filming police activities, it is clear that this gap in the regulations is ripe for abuse,” said Polity.
SAPS issued Standing Order 156 in 2003 – it’s an extensive directive to all SAPS members on how they should interact with the media. It contains a number of instructions against interfering with the taking of photographs and video.
But be warned: Standing Order 156 refers to “media representatives”, but it’s vague on who qualifies. R2K believes this should include citizen journalists – anyone with a cell phone camera – but SAPS members may see it differently. We can find no extra restrictions on members of the public to take video or photos, but citizen journalists should be extra cautious when interacting with SAPS.
As of July 2015, Standing Order 156 was under review after South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) complained to SAPS about repeated media harassment. This review is a chance to expand the order to cover the rights of citizen journalists as well as media professionals.
— Benazir (@beniandthejets) December 4, 2015
what does Standing Order 156 say?
- Section 10(1) states that police officers “must treat all media representatives with courtesy, dignity, and respect, even when provoked.”
- Section 10(3)a states that, although the media may be prohibited in terms of s69 of the South African Police Service Act from publishing certain images, “a media representative may not be prohibited from taking photographs or making visual recordings” by any SAPS member. This includes photographs of police officers themselves.
- Section 10(3)c states that “a media representative may under no circumstances be verbally or physically abused and cameras or other equipment may not be seized” unless the equipment is being seized as evidence in terms of the law.
- Also, “under no circumstances whatsoever, may a member willfully damage the camera, film, recording or other equipment of a media representative.”
What does this mean?
- When in public spaces you have the right to photograph anything in plain view, including SAPS members.
- However, section 17(2)a does make provision for the police to prevent the filming of police premises, but only when “there are reasonable grounds to believe that such visual material is intended to be used in the planning or execution of a crime or will jeopardise security measures.”
- SAPS members may not stop you from photographing any person, although there are prohibitions on publishing photos of certain people without permission (e.g. someone suspected of a criminal offense but who has not yet been charged, or a witness). This is spelled out in section 17(1) – media professionals should read it.
What are the restrictions?
- The right to photograph does not give you the right to trespass, break any other laws or interfere with lawful SAPS activities.
- Only senior SAPS leadership may authorise someone to take film or video of the inside of police premises, and the outside and inside of police cells.
- There are some (limited) restrictions on filming National Key Points.
- Standing Order 156 is just an instruction to SAPS members; it is not a law and has not been tested in court (as far as we know).
- This order doesn’t apply to metro police departments, which are separate from SAPS. It’s not yet clear if any metro police departments have similar orders.
What to do if a SAPS member tries to stop you from taking photos?
- Stay calm. Do not raise your voice or provoke violence against you.
- If police demand that you delete data under threat of violence, do so. Your life cannot be measured in megabytes.
- If you are detained, ask what crime you are suspected of committing. If the officer demands to view material or confiscates your equipment, ask what legal basis s/he to do so, and ask for the officer’s name, police station, and commanding officer.
- If you experience any contravention of Standing Order 156, you may lodge a complaint to the station commander of the nearest station. Disobeying a Standing Order is a disciplinary offense.
- If the SAPS station commander refuses to take disciplinary action against the member concerned or is otherwise unhelpful, you may take legal action against the SAPS.