Editorial: Power corrupts ― even in our respected NGOs

Ours is a land of the dispossessed. A land of the landless. A land of yearning and hope. A land of pain and anguish. A land of millions struggling with the broken promises of liberation, evidenced in the hundreds of people around the country who gathered this week to tell their stories about the land from which they draw life while still holding them locked in the chokehold of history.

Although we can blame a punitive global economic system for some of our failures to bring proper economic redress to our people, we must also admit the failures that continue to be perpetuated throughout society.

One is a failure to check power wherever it manifests itself.

At a recent meeting with editors, President Cyril Ramaphosa hailed the work of the media in the exposure of state capture. Many in the government, the president seemed to say, had no idea it was that bad. The Star this week reported that an ANC document similarly claims the ANC has been shocked by the extent of corruption.

While they recover from their shock, it is the news media that continue to report fearlessly on wrongdoing, malfeasance and inefficiency in the public sector. By reporting the news that exposes the corrupt and the inept, we demand better of our public officials.

But the media has not done this alone.

Civil society organisations have also been instrumental in doing this. Whether it is ensuring the state fulfils its responsibility to provide safe and reliable transport to pupils who would otherwise have to walk for hours to go to school, ensuring the government provides antiretrovirals to people infected with HIV, or tirelessly campaigning for Parliament to recognise the democratic imperative for the transparency of political party funding, South Africa would be left poorer without the work of these nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

Their work is important and must continue to be guarded, especially, as has happened in the past, when they come under attack from elected officials who seek to smear them.

But it is a tribute to their own successes that these voices are silenced by the urgency of actual work done, work that has strengthened South Africans and, in many cases, has actually enhanced the work of their critics.

So the NGO sector, which of course is not homogenous, has amassed considerable power. Yes, it has done so over years of hard and admirable work but power can lead to abuse of power.

Now, as the Mail & Guardian turns its focus to allegations of abuse of power in the NGO space, our work has been met with hostility, resentment and suspicion. And it has left us perplexed.

Surely, the role of the media as an agent of democracy ought to be understood by the very people who are working to deepen that democracy.

What has emerged instead is an expectation that we should ignore allegations of wrongdoing within NGOs lest it should scupper the important work of these organisations. It’s very much like the ANC saying we ought not to report on the fact that the organisation is in shambles because Nelson Mandela spent 26 years on Robben Island.

Surely the good work of an NGO ought to be able to stand up to scrutiny of the behaviour of people with which it is associated. Surely the same people who have depended on us to disseminate their campaigns understand that it is the same ethics and values that are used when we report about them.

To suggest that an entire newsroom, all its reporters and editors, are acting at the behest of someone’s grudge is asinine.

We seek to remind all the people who have sought to thwart the  M&G’s reporting on allegations of bullying, sexual harassment, silencing and assault that it reports on NGOs according to the same principles it has used to report on Jacob Zuma and the Guptas.

Responsible reporting is a requirement of our existence as a publisher of news. It is our lifeblood. But our editorial independence is also crucial to our ability to continue as a news publisher in the service of democracy.

Editorial independence is the freedom of editors to make decisions without interference from the owners of a publication. Editorial independence is tested when a publication runs articles that may be unpopular with its advertising clientele or critical of its ownership.

Editorial independence is undermined when board members of NGOs contact the chief executive of a news publisher, or representatives of its owners, in an attempt to sway a story. Editorial independence is particularly disregarded when an editor of another publication contacts an owner in an attempt to sway the focus of reporting on individuals associated with particular NGOs. These are undemocratic tendencies.

The M&G will continue to report on allegations of wrongdoing in NGOs just as it does on allegations of wrongdoing at the South African Revenue Service and Eskom. We do so because every space created to serve South Africans must be monitored. And every space in which power accrues must be held to account.

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