The Mail & Guardian’s exposé of illegal phone hacking carried out by state security agencies confirms what we have suspected for some time. Government agents are abusing their power to spy on individuals without permission from a judge as required by law.
The report found that employees of state intelligence agencies can easily intercept anybody’s cellphone conversations, text messages and emails without a judge or inspecting authority ever knowing they have done so.
This is a threat to the constitutional rights of every South African.
We have long believed that cadres deployed to state intelligence agencies are abusing their power to wage external and internal political battles. An example of each will suffice.
In 2008, I met with then Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils after it became clear to me that my phone had been illegally tapped as part of the unlawful and unconstitutional Erasmus Commission. Mr Kasrils memorably told me that, although there had been no formal instruction to intercept my communications, he could “not guarantee that it was not taking place informally.”
It turned out that the “informal” interceptions were not the work of rogue private investigators. A police officer, overcome by conscience, contacted me to say the intelligence nerve centre in Bishop Lavis was the place where tapes of my telephone conversations were analysed (and gave me details of conversations to prove it).
A second example: In 2009, the National Prosecuting Authority dropped the corruption charges against Jacob Zuma on the eve of the election as a result of leaked recordings of telephone conversations between Leonard McCarthy and Bulelani Ngcuka. Just over two weeks ago, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) found that these so-called “Zuma tapes” were obtained illegally.
These are clearly not isolated incidents.
I have today written to President Zuma requesting him to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry into the state’s illegal interception of communication. Such an Inquiry, headed by a retired judge, should investigate:
• Whether state agents are intercepting electronic communication including emails, SMSs and telephone conversations without a judge’s knowledge or approval
• Why there are insufficient checks and balances to protect people’s privacy
• Why inspecting authorities are failing to detect illegal interceptions
• Why cellphone operators are obliged to provide a live feed to the Office of Interception Centres (OIC) based in Sandton
• Whether private investigators are accessing communications and phone records through contacts in the state intelligence agencies
• Whether state agencies are using private investigators to illegally intercept communication
President Zuma has a conflict of interests in this matter: He was helped to power by illegal phone hacking and the abuse of state intelligence agencies. Suspicion is rife that such abuse will escalate in the run-up to the ANC’s Mangaung Conference next year.
That is why he should, all the more, show good faith by appointing an independent Commission of Enquiry, with full powers, to get to the bottom of this matter.
The rise of phone hacking should concern everybody, not just politicians. It is a threat to the civil liberties of every South African. President Zuma must allay people’s fears of a surveillance state and establish an independent Commission of Inquiry without delay.