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#BringBackTheSignal

And while you're at it, bring back the transparency and accountability as well.

Read time 4min 30sec

The local soapie that was president Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation Address (SONA) aired almost a week ago and the nation - in fact, the world - is still talking about it. That is the power of bad news.

The now well-known cellphone jamming scene kicked off the episode, staged in Parliament last Thursday, as melodically familiar chants of "bring back the signal" rang out.

It is this scene, which has earned Zuma and National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete crates of rotten tomatoes, that has the nation questioning government's transparency and accountability.

Number One has been bestowed conflicting nominations - for his role as a "broken man presiding over a broken society" and "honourable president, targeted by an evil cockroach that must be protected at all costs, illegal or not".

Signal gremlins

After vehement denial and feigning of ignorance around the technology that was employed in the house to effectively censor coverage of the SONA last week, the powers that be changed their tune, laying the blame on those darn cellphone signal gremlins.

Luckily, the gremlins must have been of the not-so-tough variety, because they were quickly scared off just after Mbete sent the secretary to investigate the mysterious case of the absent cellphone signal.

Yesterday during the SONA debate, the speaker changed her tack again, alluding vaguely to a certain state security agency being behind the cellphone jamming device.

At the same time, Mbete absolved Parliament of having any part to play in the cellphone jamming episode. And she delivered a credible performance. I mean, it's not like the complete absence of telecommunications during the most historic address of the year would be something Parliamentary representatives would have easily cottoned on to, had it not been for the persistent chanting from the audience.

SONA has quickly gone from being the country's annual opening of Parliament address focusing on the political and socio-economic state of the nation, to being a special kind of embarrassing.

Fellow jammer

Just as an aside - and in government's defence - the Zuma administration is not the first to try get away with blocking cellphone signals to gratify its own purposes at the expense of citizens of democracy.

Sixty-year-old US vigilante Jason Humphreys used a cellphone jammer too, to prevent motorists along his daily commute from speaking on their cellphones. The difference is, he got away with it for a good couple of years.

Humphreys was finally arrested last year, after having kept a cellphone jammer he purchased in his vehicle with him, every day for two years.

And apparently he would have gotten away with it for longer, had it not been for a local carrier noticing something was messing with its towers and notifying the national telecoms authority, sparking an investigation.

The American vigilante jammer was slapped with a $48 000 fine.

Unluckily for government, it would have had to get up pretty early in the morning to pull the wool over the South African media's eyes.

Out-and-out censorship

In our government's case, a Parliamentary probe into the then alleged use of cellphone jamming equipment soon got under way - despite ministers insisting the lack of telecoms was nothing more than a "technical glitch" - while the Democratic Alliance demanded the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) conduct a probe of its own.

I suspect ICASA's disapproval will remain mere criticism - at least until the matter is swept under the same carpet many of Zuma's other dust bunnies call home.

ICASA has noted the use of such blocking equipment by any bodies other than SA's national security cluster departments was illegal. This was first made clear as day by the Findings and Conclusions Document on the Enquiry into Mobile Telephone Blocking Devices policy in 2002.

The authority repeated this view in 2011 and - in case anyone missed it - echoed it again in 2012.

But I suspect ICASA's disapproval will remain mere criticism - at least until the matter is swept under the same carpet many of Zuma's other dust bunnies call home.

Our deputy minister of telecoms and postal services, Hlengiwe Mkhize, has already done her bit to dispose of the debacle, by creating a clever diversion. Yesterday, Mkhize linked the Parliament cellphone signal jamming episode to apartheid, saying it "made us to reflect about our challenges of inequity, poverty, unemployment and access" (sic).

Another dazzling impromptu performance, deserving of a nomination in itself.

I'm not buying any of it though. Whether it was to some degree a measure aimed at protecting the president and not targeted at muzzling the media - as Mbete claims - or not, the fact remains that the employment of a cellphone jammer amounts to censorship. Illegal censorship. Declared as such by our self-same government over 10 years ago.

What has in the past been suggested - but never this blatantly shown - as press censorship, was confirmed at SONA 2015.

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