MINISTERS in the increasingly notorious security cluster threatened yesterday to crack down on journalists who took and published pictures of President Jacob Zuma’s private residence, Nkandla.
The warning came as five ministers dodged probing questions on the controversial Nkandla upgrade, costing R206-million, according to government figures.
State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said in Pretoria yesterday thatthe media had breached the National Key Points Act in its continued publication of pictures of Zuma’s residence.
“No one, including those in the media, is allowed to take images and publicise images even pointing where the possible security features are, it is not right,” Cwele said.
“It’s not done anywhere, no country … has done this. We have not seen images of the White House showing where the security features or possible security features are,” he said.
The point was hammered home by Mthethwa who challenged anyone to show where, in established democracies, pictures of buildings of national security were publicised.
“You will never find anybody, anywhere in the world … whose media people go around and flaunt pictures of the [homes of the] head of state and even mention specific security features. Transparency is one thing, but this is not transparency, it’s nakedness in terms of security,” Mthethwa said.
But after the initial statements declaring it unlawful to take the pictures, the ministers backed down, qualifying it to say the ban on pictures referred only to “sensitive” parts of the compound. However, they did not list the sensitive parts.
The government stance was slammed by media bodies and commentators, with critics immediately picking holes in the argument that no other democracies allowed security features of their presidents’ residences to be carried in the media.
While Cwele and Mthethwa said not even the White House had its security features randomly exposed, the first distinction is that the Nkandla residency is not the official residence, to be occupied by Zuma’s successors. It is his private residence. Also, documentaries focusing specifically on the White House’s security features have been filmed, while the US presidential state car, known as “Cadillac 1”, has appeared in newspaper articles focusing on its security features.
The UK prime minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street, the White House and the Pentagon in the United States are open for public tours. People can even take a virtual tour online of the UN Security Council. Google has also set up a specific search engine dedicated to virtual tours of Europe’s parliaments.
Questions lingered yesterday on whether the ministers were even aware of the existence of Google Earth, through which anyone with access to the internet could view pictures of the Nkandla residence from anywhere in the world. A tweet with the Google Earth coordinates released by journalist Barry Bateman was an instant hit on Twitter, while the subject “Nkandla” also became one of the trending topics almost immediately.
Some enraged South Africans used recent Nkandla pictures as their profile pictures in social media outlets as a sign of defiance.
The SA National Editors’ Forum said the purpose of the National Key Points Act of 1980 was to protect the security measures of national key points from being revealed.
“In this case, it unfortunately seems that the ministers are using security laws to avoid accounting to the public on the Nkandla upgrades,” it said.
“It has never been the intention of the media to undermine President Zuma’s security by publishing these pictures. Similarly, we publish photos of other national key points, like the Union Buildings and parliament, on an almost daily basis. The photographs that have been published were taken from a distance or from the air to show the extent of the upgrades worth over R200-million that the public has paid for.
“It must always be remembered that these upgrades were done to President Zuma’s private residence, from which he and his family will continue to benefit for years to come, and not state property.
“We will continue to publish images of the Nkandla upgrades because we firmly believe there is immense public interest in doing so. To stop doing so will be a betrayal of our duty as watchdogs of democracy.”
Constitutional law expert Pierre Vos said the ministers’ assertions were “nonsense”.
He said the National Key Points Act set out that it was only unlawful for pictures of the security measures to be publicised.
“It’s nonsense. The [act] says it’s an offence to publish information about security measures that are applicable at the NKP [national key point] … nowhere in the act does it say no one is allowed to publish pictures of a national key point. That means you cannot publish pictures of the Union Buildings, the SABC, parliament and whatever else. So it is a bizarre and absurd claim to make.”
Members of the media and public could also find themselves in hot water, without even knowing it, because Mthethwa has refused to publish a list of such buildings or state installations, of which there are at least 182.
If the spirit of the ministers’ bluster is taken seriously, unsuspecting tourists and South Africans may be in trouble if they are caught taking pictures of some of the key points.
Prominent national key points include the Union Buildings, parliament, former president Nelson Mandela’s home in Qunu in the Eastern Cape, former president FW de Klerk’s home in Cape Town, the Government Printing Works and all the branches of the Reserve Bank.
Mthethwa said the cluster, which had received a provisional report on investigations into irregularities regarding the upgrades by public protector Thuli Madonsela, would continue to cooperate with her.
But this was followed with a warning that the respect needed to be reciprocated by Madonsela.