Journalists have become casualties of the high-stakes political games crippling the country.
After a social media campaign against several prominent journalists, which has variously accused Ferial Haffajee, Ranjeni Munusamy and others of being agents of “white monopoly capital”, “lapdogs of the Rupert family” and other endearing epithets, the campaign was escalated.
The mysterious WMC Leaks website published a lengthy document detailing the everyday activities of veteran editor Peter Bruce. The site, which appears to be a direct response to the #GuptaLeaks series of exposés documenting allegations of state capture, made wild, unsubstantiated claims about Bruce’s personal life – all of which he has since denied.
But where Bruce and wife walk their dogs is hardly the point here. The published photographs and accompanying commentary proved that Bruce had been placed under surveillance last year already.
And Bruce has since written that he was repeatedly warned by the earnest Twitter defenders of state capture that his life would be disrupted.
The surveillance of a journalist by nameless, faceless entities is deeply disturbing and is clearly designed to intimidate Bruce and others.
Then came the news of Suna Venter’s death. Venter had already paid a steep price for upholding her journalistic integrity, being forced out of the SABC as one of the “SABC 8” who spoke out against the policy at the public broadcaster of not showing footage of protest violence.
Although Venter was reinstated following a Labour Court ruling, she became the target of horrific intimidation, including death threats and burglaries. In one incident, she was shot in the face with a pellet gun; in another, she was tied to a tree in the Melville Koppies while the ground around her was set alight. “Those closest to her believe that her [heart] condition was exacerbated, if not caused, by the events of the past year,” said her family in a statement.
And then activist group Black First Land First (BLF) organised a demonstration outside Bruce’s home. This was followed by the group issuing a stern warning to “white racists that masquerade as journalists, in defence of white monopoly capital”.
Seven white journalists were mentioned as targets for protest action, and three black journalists were described as askaris (turncoats) being “used by white monopoly capital”.
There is little doubt that, taken together, these incidents represent a co-ordinated assault on media freedom in South Africa, as court papers submitted by the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) make clear. Sanef, along with 11 senior journalists who have been specifically targeted by BLF, is seeking an urgent interdict against BLF and its leader, Andile Mngxitama, to prevent further harassment, intimidation and threats against journalists.
Referencing Venter’s death, Sanef chairperson Mahlatse Gallens – political editor at News24 – said in the application to the high court in Johannesburg: “This court should be slow to countenance such violence and threats against the media because a free and pluralist media is vital to the democratic functioning of the Republic … Furthermore, an attack on one journalist or media worker can have a chilling effect on others, particularly when perpetrators can act with impunity, as the respondents do.”
But the BLF is not backing down. “We say that Sanef is an institution that is in defence of white settler monopoly capital,” said spokesperson Zanele Lwana.
When asked which journalists or media outlets the BLF did endorse, Lwana said the ANN7 news channel and The New Age offered “alternative views”. Both outlets are owned by the Gupta family.
But if BLF’s intention was to undermine the credibility of South African media, it may have backfired, sparking instead a vigorous defence of journalism from across civil society and the political spectrum.
“We will never agree with those who attack journalists and march to their homes,” tweeted Police Minister Fikile Mbalula.
Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo said: “It’s a reflection of the type of intolerance that we experience in South Africa today … One would love to see a society where journalists are able to go and dig for stories without feeling unsafe.”
Zwelinzima Vavi’s South African Federation of Trade Unions dismissed BLF as “fascist thugs”, and the Pan Africanist Congress promised to “physically protect” journalists. “We are not going to be intimidated by [a] bunch of clowns who are threatening the gains of freedom which [the] PAC sacrificed with blood, for it cannot be‚” said the PAC’s Kenneth Mokgatlhe.
The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s director, Neeshan Balton, said: “We can never underestimate the role that journalists play in promoting and upholding the constitutional value of freedom of speech.”
This reaction makes it clear: the media still has more friends than enemies. Publicly, at least. But the trend is worrying nonetheless. The recent incidents occur against the backdrop of other attacks on individual journalists and the institution of the media itself. Just look at the death threats received by Sipho Masondo for his award-winning reporting on corruption in the water affairs department, or the death threats received by Mzilikazi wa Afrika for his stories on dodgy Eskom tenders.
Think back to the original iterations of the Protection of State Information Bill, known as the Secrecy Bill, which would have outlawed whistle-blowing and made it nearly impossible for journalists to do their jobs. Consider the allegations that the government has manipulated its advertising spend to favour government-friendly outlets.
These are dangerous, difficult times to be a journalist. And although the media fraternity can take heart from the public groundswell of support, it is up to those same cheerleaders – particularly the ones in the ruling party and the government – to safeguard South Africa’s reputation as a bastion of freedom of speech.