Last year, when the Mail & Guardian was reporting on what appeared to be a declaration of war on the Trillian whistle-blower by her former employers, a missive from a legal representative of Trillian arrived at our offices. It intimated that our interest in the financial advisory firm and its amazing dealings with Eskom and our coverage of the whistle-blower’s claims were somehow coloured by ulterior motives, personal agendas and undeclared conflicts of interest.
We dismissed the letter with the contempt it deserved and directed the Trillian representatives to the Press Council.
This played out just before the revelations in the tranche of emails secured by the Sunday Times, City Press and Daily Maverick. It was an attempt at intimidation, although admittedly the letter did contain a disclaimer about Trillian’s belief in the freedom of the press and its centrality to democracy.
But then the #GuptaLeaks did something extraordinary. It quietened the sanctimony of the likes of Trillian. Though they still proclaim their innocence, the evidence against them is now so glaring and their associates inside Eskom so compromised that they were forced into retreat, shoring up their gains, no doubt, for the day the Asset Forfeiture Unit comes knocking.
But it is telling that one of the first responses to media reports about state capture was to question the motives of the media, to allege that investigations into Trillian, the Gupta family and their companies were born of a conspiracy cooked up by shadowy media owners and their associates in Stellenbosch.
We are not fans of the Stellenbosch mafia but we know that our colleagues with owners residing among the vineyards are quite capable of probing the underbelly of the misuse of state resources, and can do a good job of it, too.
And, yes, there is more than one kind of corruption — disgraced Steinhoff boss Markus Jooste has reminded us all of just how well non-state corruption thrives. But there is something dangerous afoot when journalism that reveals wrongdoing is met with counter-allegations about the motives of the media. Not too far away is always the suggestion that the media ought to regulated.
President Jacob Zuma has not tried a Donald Trump-style “fake news awards” but his official statements feature the word “misleading” and similar sentiments. The media is not just wrong but “mischievous”. His party likes to characterise the media as “counter-revolutionary”.
This is dangerous because it is a pattern repeated elsewhere.
In the Philippines this week, its Securities and Exchange Commission revoked the corporate registration of Rappler, an online media startup that has reported extensively on President Rodrigo Duterte’s army and police abuses in the government’s war on drugs. The commission cited Rappler’s two American investors as evidence that it was foreign-owned. The company is now in danger of shutting down.
Then, earlier this month, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority fined five television stations — Star TV, Azam Two, Channel 10, ITV and East Africa TV — a collective 60-million Tanzanian shillings ($27 000) for covering a report by a human rights organisation that claimed security personnel committed abuses during a local election in November. The Tanzanian government is using the broadcasting regulator as proxy for censoring political reporting, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The tried and tested recipes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban are to regulate the media so tightly that they are effectively muzzled.
So it is imperative we remain vigilant about media freedom in South Africa.
If the #GuptaLeaks offered vindication of the earliest media reports of state capture, then this week’s move by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) against Trillian must be an endorsement of the strength of the news media in South Africa to ensure the most powerful in society are held to account.
In the past two weeks, the president has finally acceded to establish a commission of inquiry into state capture, and the NPA has at long last made a move to do its job and pursue Trillian. Although we will still be exploring the political expediency of the timing of it all, there must be something said about the resilience of the media in this story.
The news media, and the M&G included, are not without fault. We are riddled with contradictions and must strive to capture the complexity of South Africa and its people better. And when we make mistakes, our self-regulation mechanisms must be rigorous enough to hold us accountable and ensure better standards prevail. But the media remains crucial if we are to achieve a South Africa in which its people are able to hold its leaders to account.