It was difficult to tell which photographers and journalists were simply attending or covering the vigil for South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl who has been held captive for a month in Libya without any contact with the outside world. Many were taking notes and photographs or video and then lighting candles and, even, shedding a tear as around 50 people gathered at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) in Parktown last night.
Overlooking Johannesburg, the city in which Hammerl cut his teeth in the media, his father Ludwig and 11-year-old daughter Aurora joined his colleagues and friends as they lit 29 candles – one for each day in captivity. Once the 29 candles were alight, everyone there took a light for their own candle from the 29 already lit.
Former Saturday Star editor, Paula Fray who was Anton’s boss, spoke about his bravery and Fred Khumalo, Sunday Times columnist, editor and author spoke about Hammerl, his friend. Professor Farid Esack gave a spiritual message and Michael Schmidt, executive director of the IAJ told of the importance of the media standing behind conflict journalists. And all the while, those present held their candles in the air and contemplated Hammerl’s return to his wife and children who were holding a vigil in London at the same time.
His wife, Penny Sukhraj, sent a message from the family to supporters. “We awoke today to the reality that it is now 29 days since Anton was captured. We have been in anguish daily, retiring each night with heaviness in our hearts that no news has come of his release, awaking each new day, determined to be bent on fresh hope of good news,” the message read. “But today, we choose not to bury ourselves in grief over Anton. Instead we choose to keep alight the flame of his life, for it cannot be hidden.”
While still at Pretoria technikon, Anton himself was faced with a similar choice – of either cocooning himself or exposing his person, emotions and standing in his community, to the elements of the true reality of life in a pre-democratic South Africa.
“Of this, he once said: ‘Students at the all-white Afrikaans institute were more keen to teach the nuance of light reflected on loaves of bread and shiny cars… rather than consider engaging in the documentary of the country burning outside the back door…’
“We all know which path he chose. Disenchanted and at the tail-end of his photographic studies in the early nineties, he immersed himself in work as a freelancer for the Star, with several seniors including, Ken Oesterbroek, mentoring him.”
His family said that Hammerl’s aim was to “ to document history, tell the story, reveal the alternative and most importantly, reflect the reality.” His approach resulted in several accolades: the 1997 World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass; the Abdul Shariff Humanitarian photographer of the year award in 1997 and 1999; the Mondi Shanduka Photographer of the year in 2005 and the Fuji Africa News Image of the year in 2006.
“All of this, while maintaining a disposition of utmost kindness and sincerity, ever ready to help and take action even when others stand back, always willing to make friends, even in the most unlikely places. Even when in the minority, Anton has never been afraid of standing up and being counted.”
The family thanked supporters. “Your presence at this vigil today resonates with his passion for making a difference, and demonstrates your commitment to keeping strong the call for his release. We’re deeply grateful to you for this.
“These are indeed dark days for us as his family. But we’re holding onto the hope that each day that passes brings us closer to the day of his release. Please don’t give up on him – we can’t. We won’t.”
The SA National Editors Forum (Sanef), while calling on government to “redouble its efforts to effect Hammerl’s release”, drew attention to the fact that Parliament is still set on enacting the Protection of Information Bill that would allow the three tiers of government extraordinary powers to declare “a wide range of information secret”.
“Parliament is pressing ahead with the Protection of Information Bill which when enacted will enable national, provincial or local governments to declare secret a wide range of information which if published could result in the person responsible for the publication, an editor, journalist or a citizen, being imprisoned for a period which in some instances could be for up to 25 years. The current deadline date for this Bill is June 24, 2011,” it said.
Sanef pointed out that the ANC and government, in its “unbridled” criticism of the media, contributed to the hostile environment in which journalists often operated. This is one of the factors that led the New York-based world freedom monitor, Freedom House, to downgrade South Africa from a country with a free press to one rated “partly free” – only one stage removed from a rating of “not free”.
“During the run-up to the May 18 local government elections, the media in general has been identified as “the opposition” by leading figures in the ruling alliance. Making the media out to be the enemy contributes to creating the kind of hostile environment where journalists and photographers are seen as legitimate targets for harassment, assault or other repressive actions, and also creates fertile ground for self-censorship,” Sanef said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists also sent a message to those holding a flame for Hammerl. “Stories, be they in images or in words, provide a vital means to understand the world we live in. The act of bearing witness, of breaking the silence, of serving as the eyes and ears of many, is at the heart of journalism. This act of reporting the news, of seeking to find and show us all what is truly happening, is what drove Anton Hammerl to Libya and what has kept him captive there.
“Anton Hammerl’s fate is unfortunately not unique. Libyan authorities, and the rogue elements that support the Qaddafi government, have engaged in a series of ruthless attacks on the press and shepherding of journalists with the aim of controlling information.”
The committee of said that since unrest began on February 17, it had documented more than 80 attacks on the press. These included four fatalities and 49 detentions, as well as assaults, attacks on news facilities, jamming of satellite news transmissions, destruction of equipment, disabling of the Internet, obstruction, and expulsions.
“Today, 17 journalists are missing or in detention, among them three photojournalists: Spaniard Manuel Varela with the European Pressphoto Agency; American James Foley of the Global Post, and South African Anton Hammerl, a freelancer for whom your candles are burning in hope this evening,” the committee said.
“The only way to capture the truth is to get close to it. We light a candle with you all tonight and stand by you in your hope and efforts so that Anton will be released without harm.”