Paulus Kiiyala Shiku
One of the journalists who were hit with rubber bullets by the Namibian Police during a counterfeit goods protest at Chinatown in Windhoek recently, has laid assault charges against the force.
Eliphas Bonifatius, a radio producer at the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), said he laid a charge of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm against the Namibian Police.
“I am walking on crutches right now, so I made a case, and I was also advised to approach the High Court,” Bonifatius said to New Era on inquiry.
He said, before the police arrived on the scene, a group of journalists from different media houses gathered to interview Epafras Mukwiilongo, the leader of the NEFF – and suddenly, the Special Field Force members started firing rubber bullets at them, injuring some in the process.
He said, instead of being cautious, he was “too comfortable”, thinking it is a peaceful protest and nothing dangerous could happen.
Bonifatius said the incident taught him to always be safe when covering protests, where the police might be expected to enforce order.
‘’I advise the police to stop using rubber bullets on people, as it can cause injuries – and instead use tear gas, which is harmless,’’ said the newsman.
He also has a word of advice for fellow reporters to be vigilant and always on alert when covering violent protests to avoid being caught up with protesters when the police come.
Namibian Police’s deputy inspector general of operations Joseph Shikongo said he did not know about the case, saying it is probably in the hands of his juniors.
Also approached to comment on the issue was Shelleygan Petersen from The Namibian newspaper, who also covered the protest but was not hurt.
She said journalists should always wear gear that distinguishes them as media, and have their media cards, especially when covering protests or any other event.
With branded gear, they can easily be recognised as members of the media and not get confused with protesters.
“Because we lack resources, and some are not trained properly on these events, we have become so comfortable to cover events with whatever gear we have. So, I have now learned that we need more knowledge on what to do in such incidences.’’
She said media houses and editors have the responsibility to train journalists on how to present themselves and what to do to stay safe at violent protests or even battle grounds.
Reporters should also be provided with protective clothing when they cover risky news events, she said.
“Our seniors also need to always be on our side and support us whenever something goes wrong. It is not good that some blame us entirely for events happening to us in the field.’’
Petersen said police sometimes make it difficult for journalists to identify themselves by simply ignoring and sending them away.
“There is so much hatred from the police towards us (media personnel), which I don’t understand where it is coming from. We need to develop a good relationship with the police,” said the journalist.
Petersen added it is always advisable for newsrooms to plan and be proactive on who to cover the protests, as well as guide them, instead of just giving the assignment at the last minute.
She said amateur journalists might not know how to safely cover the events if not trained.
Responding to why the police had to fire rubber bullets in the direction of journalists interviewing sources, Shikongo said the crowd was warned before action.
He said he spoke to journalists at the scene, including two from other media houses, who were also hurt but did not see Bonifatius.
Shikongo said he had asked affected journalists if they wanted to lay charges, and they said they had no intentions.
“We are not here to hurt journalists; we want to improve the relationship with members of the media.”
The senior cop advised journalists to always approach the commander of the mission and identify themselves.
“We can then tell them which side they can take photos of or safely film the happenings. So, they must avoid being among demonstrators and always listen to police warnings,’’ he said.
He is convinced those who spoke to him are now well informed about how to handle violent protests in the presence of police.
“Those who say we handled harmless people in a harsh way cannot assure us that there were no dangerous weapons in the crowd of protesters.”
On 12 May, following the burning of counterfeit goods worth N$5 million by NamRA, the Namibia Economic Freedom Fighters’ (NEFF) member Michael Amushelelo went to Chinatown and demanded it be closed or they would burn it down.
The following day, with the support of some members of the public, the NEFF demanded the Chinese businesses be closed on the basis that they sell counterfeit goods.
Dispersing a crowd of protesters, the police used rubber bullets and tear gas, after which some members of the media and public were caught up in the storm and got injured.
Poynter, a US-based nonprofit media institute and newsroom that provides fact-checking, media literacy and journalism ethics training to citizens and journalists, offers safety guidelines to cover unrest:
“Your attitude is crucial. Show respect, follow police orders, and don’t argue while tensions are high. To avoid being mistaken for a demonstrator, use your best judgment and try not to wear clothing that matches what demonstrators are wearing. Clearly identify yourself and have credentials easily available. But think carefully about whether you display credentials openly when surrounded by demonstrators. Don’t draw attention to yourself. TV lights attract attention. The smaller the camera, the more you blend in with a crowd. Stay on the edge of crowds – not in the middle. In crowds, move in short steps to avoid tripping.
The ‘Safety Guide for Journalists’, issued by Reporters Without Borders and UNESCO, is another source for journalists who might need to improve their knowledge and it is available online.