Press Statement: SA government’s handling of Hammerl case outrageous

The Professional Journalists’ Association of South Africa (ProJourn) is deeply saddened to hear of the death of our friend and colleague, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, last month in Libya.

News of Hammerl’s death broke only late last night when American journalists Clare Gillis and James Foley were interviewed by the GlobalPost after crossing into rebel-held Tunisia, having been released after six weeks in Gaddafi-loyalist custody in Tripoli.

Gillis and Foley said they and Spanish photojournalist Manu Brabo were captured by loyalist forces on the outskirts of Brega on April 5. Hammerl suffered serious gunshot wounds to the abdomen during their capture and could not have survived without medical attention, which was not available. His death has subsequently been confirmed by the South African government, which says that the Libyan government had previously provided assurances that Hammerl was alive.

London-based Hammerl (41) was a dedicated father of three, and a professional who won himself innumerable friends across all strata of the societies that he worked within thanks to his unflagging sense of humour – poorly hidden behind a serious demeanour – his unique sartorial style, warmth, intelligence and incomparable eye for documenting South Africa’s birth as a democracy.

The high regard in which he was held by his colleagues in the media fraternity was illustrated by the more than 100 journalists and friends who demonstrated in New York, London, Johannesburg and Cape Town to apply pressure to the Libyan government to establish the whereabouts of Hammerl and his colleagues – and in the almost 35 000 people internationally who signed a petition for the safe return of the four.

ProJourn would like to express its heartfelt condolences to Hammerl’s wife Penny Sukhraj, to his children, family, friends and colleagues.

We also take a minute of silence to honour Al Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber, Libyan broadcaster Mohammed al-Nabbous, British photojournalist/filmmaker Tim Hetherington and American photographer Chris Hondros who have been killed in Libya since the civil war began. A number of Libyan journalists are still missing-in-action, while several foreign journalists remain in custody.

It needs to be emphasised that freelancers like Hammerl and Brabo do not have the support of large news organisations when venturing into conflict zones, often at their own expense. They put their lives on the line to bring us the truth from volatile areas for uncertain reward.

We also take this opportunity to thank the Hungarian diplomats in Tripoli who helped secure the safe return of Gillis, Foley, Brabo and British journalist Nigel Chandler, and to the Turkish diplomats who did the same earlier with other detained journalists.

ProJourn would, however, like to express its horror and outrage over how Hammerl’s case was mishandled by the South African government, which did not do nearly enough to try and find out where Hammerl was and what had happened to him, despite President Jacob Zuma having met in Libya with Muammar Gaddafi after Hammerl went missing.

We fear this lack of action – despite the later partial reopening of the South African consulate in Tripoli in response to pressure from Hammerl’s friends and family – reflects the government’s increasing lack of respect for the media, and the subordination of our once-vaunted human rights culture to the crude realpolitik of the state’s strategic interests.

We call on President Zuma to explain why this matter was not handled with the seriousness and urgency it merited and to now do everything in his power to secure the return of Hammerl’s remains to his family.

The Professional Journalists’ Association promotes ethical and balanced reporting and analysis in South Africa in support of diversity and democracy, defends the rights of working journalists in their professional work and in their reflection of the voices of the public whom they serve, and argues for sound governmental and corporate policy relating to the gathering and dissemination of information.