Saturday, October 24, 2015

'We gotta get out! We gotta get out!' How eNCA's panicked Iman Rapetti and SABC News' Chriselda Lewis reacted on live TV when #FeesMustFall turned violent.

"We gotta get out! We gotta get out!" said Iman Rappetti, eNCA (DStv 403) anchor and reporter, with the panic very clearly audible in her voice as loud thuds became audible against the side of the vehicle.

Elsewhere on the burning lawns of the Union Buildings, the SABC News' (DStv 404) star reporter Chriselda Lewis fought her own battle trying to rescue an interrupted live interview on the air as a scuffle with angry protesters was shown on live South African television as well.

It was just two of the incidents that were shown live on South African television news on Friday as panicked and stressed TV news reporters and TV news crews tried to cover the #FeesMustFall student protest and march at the Union Buildings on Friday.

Besides TV news, several radio reporters and newspaper journalists also reported that they were threatened with physical violence and at least one SABC cameraman and one BBC cameraman got injured following students throwing rocks and other objects.

Earlier in the day, Patrick Conroy, eNCA managing director, reminded all eNCA staff that safety covering stories and events come first and that they should leave any place immediately when they no longer feel safe where they are.

A heavy-handed police presence - firing tear gas, stun grenades, chasing students and firing a water cannon - at the Union Building only served to escalate tensions and violence on Friday.

It was made worse by the South African president Jacob Zuma's failure to address students protesting over student fees, directly, after government officials over a loudspeaker earlier in the day told them that he would.

The South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) says it is concerned by intimidation and harassment reports of the media by the police and protesters.

"We're shocked by the fact that journalists were targeted by the police and some of the protesters," says Sanef director Mathatha Tsedu.

"We've called on the police to ensure that they stick to the agreement that we have with them."

"We note with concern that some journalists, including a reporter from the BBC and an eNCA cameraman, were injured after rocks were thrown at police and journalists at the Union Buildings."

"Equipment was damaged and there were also reports of theft. Sanef commends those students who intervened and forced their peers to return the equipment."

Although the day's student fees protest started out peaceful, it descended into chaos and violence.

It looked as if South African TV news crews were not adequately prepared for covering the story on Friday in terms of taking adequate security measures and back-up plans to safeguard their own well-being as well as protecting their equipment and live broadcasts.

It was foreseeable that the lawns of the Union Buildings could erupt and turn into a so-called "hot zone" given the violent events that played out earlier the week at parliament and at universities across South Africa.

Yet South African TV news crews, instead of just covering the story, also became the story.

The question can be asked whether TV news crews took enough precautions or did enough security analysis and pre-planning for the unpredictable event and if they could have made better choices given what they knew could happen (and which then did).

Spots they reported from came under attack from pelting rocks and stones, outside broadcast vans were damaged and warned that it could be set alight, reporters and cameramen were hit with rocks and flying objects, and equipment from satellite vans to cameras were broken, vandalised and couldn't be used anymore.

It not clear how TV news crews planned to make a quick exit and retreat with satellite vans from where they chose to park surrounded by thousands of students.

Was it possible to take some, or more if they did, of their own security protection personnel to help shield reporters and whisk them to safety if they came under attack or if violence broke out (which it did)?

Some different metrics and a different guidebook is used reporting from conflict zones and war zones - something not a lot of South African TV news reporters and anchors have experience in, or experienced.

The lawns of the Union Buildings on Friday afternoon turned into a conflict zone where a different set of news rules work better although the news values of trying to get the news out and reporting it remain unchanged. TV news should have anticipated that.

South African TV news did great work on Friday in extremely unpredictable and difficult circumstances.

Yet I cannot help but wonder if they couldn't have thought longer, have been wiser and more prudent, and have prepared a bit better before beforehand.