South African authorities should drop criminal trespass and intimidation charges against freelance journalist Thomo Nkgadima and ensure that members of the press do not face reprisal for reporting issues of public interest, the Committee to Protect Journalists have said.
On December 24, 2023, police in Fetakgomo Tubatse Municipality in South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province summoned and arrested Nkgadima, who contributes to the privately owned newspaper Sunday World, in response to a complaint of trespass and intimidation by the municipality’s mayor, Eddie Maila, the journalist and Sunday World digital editor Tumo Mokone told CPJ.
In a statement to CPJ, Thabiso Mokoena, a spokesperson for the mayor, said that a case had been lodged against two men who “entered the Mayor’s premises without his knowledge or consent.” Mokoena did not name the second person and added that they “later learned” that one of the men was a journalist.
Ngkadima denied the allegations and told CPJ that he only took photographs from outside the property in Praktiseer, about 15 km (9 miles) north of Burgersfort, the municipality’s main town, in connection with a story he was reporting about illegal electricity connections in the area.
On December 27, Nkgadima appeared at the Praktiseer Magistrate Court on charges of intimidation and trespass, according to the journalist and a statement by the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), an industry body. Nkgadima told CPJ that he appeared without legal representation and was denied bail.
Nkgadima said that on December 29, the court released him on bail of 1,000 rand (US$ 53) and scheduled his next appearance for February 7.
“Thomo Nkgadima’s arrest and detention over the holiday period was a disgraceful attempt to deter him from reporting on a matter of public interest,” said CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo, in Nairobi. “South African authorities should halt all criminal proceedings related to Nkgadima’s journalism and provide guarantees that he can continue to work without further harassment.”
Nkgadima told CPJ that he was detained under “inhumane conditions” at Tubatse police station, which is adjacent to the court.
“It’s a filthy place; there’s no functioning toilet,” he said, adding that he did not eat anything because he did not trust the food and that his relatives were not allowed to visit him. “I was unwell by Friday. I was shivering while in court but got better when I got home.”
If found guilty of trespass, Nkgadima could face up to two years imprisonment plus a fine of up to 2,000 rand (US $107), while the penalty for intimidation is up to 10 years in jail plus a fine of up to 20,000 rand (US$1,068).
“I’m ready to defend myself and defend the freedom I enjoy as a journalist,” Nkgadima told CPJ. “I won’t be intimidated. I’ll defend my rights because I didn’t commit any crime.”
Limpopo Province police spokesperson Brigadier Hlulani Mashaba told CPJ that a complaint had been lodged against Nkgadima and another person who was “on the run” but declined to comment further while the matter was in court.
South Africa’s constitution protects media freedom and its courts have supported that right, including by pushing back on legal efforts to gag investigative reporters and a ruling prohibiting former President Jacob Zuma from privately prosecuting journalist Karyn Maughan. However, CPJ documented at least nine assaults on journalists in 2023 and there have been calls for greater protection of the press ahead of elections due to take place between May and August 2024.