As a publisher of news, the Mail & Guardian seeks to tell the story of our world at a particular point in time. We seek to find the stories that tell us more about the world we live in and the people we are. In each story we tell, we strive to do so fairly and accurately.
Sexual harassment is endemic in South Africa, as it is in much of the rest of the world. We know that South Africa has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world. It is a crisis that has mostly gone unacknowledged, at great cost to the physical and mental health of survivors.
In recent years, however, there have been a greater number of revelations about the extent of sexual harassment and indeed about gender-based violence in society. It demonstrates a perceptible shift in the world. As a news publisher, we record these shifts, we delve beneath them.
In the past two years, the M&G has on several occasions reported on allegations of harassment and abuse— in the liberation movement, in the African Union Commission and most recently in civil society organisations in South Africa. These stories are not easy to tell within the confines of the rules of journalism — rules we live by and for which we have the utmost respect. Sexual harassment most often happens in places where there are only two people and where there may be no physical evidence to corroborate claims.
In addition, the continued patriarchy in our society means that those who do come forward are often publicly shamed and shunned. When those whom they are accusing are powerful public figures — heroes in the eyes of many — it is even harder.
This week, a report commissioned by Equal Education into allegations of sexual harassment and obstructive behaviour exonerated one of the organisation’s founders, Doron Isaacs, of claims of sexual harassment, which the M&G reported on. It also cleared Zackie Achmat of covering up for Isaacs, as the M&G had reported.
The report has shocked and disturbed us for various reasons.
Like former judge Kathleen Satchwell, who chaired the inquiry, we too believe in the principles of natural justice. We agree that Isaacs and Achmat have rights — one of which is to answer to the allegations before being condemned. We too believe that, where there are conflicting versions, these should be tested. We understand the “most difficult conundrum” the panel faced.
But hers was a quasi-judicial process. Ours was newspaper reporting — with very different rules. Anonymous sources have long been recognised in news telling, where there is good reason. To criticise us for not doing what the panel was supposed to do is grossly unfair.
But, there is an ethical duty on the part of the newspaper to seek to corroborate allegations made and to offer those implicated a meaningful right of reply. We are also acutely aware of the dangers of anonymous sources.
In both these processes a balance must be found between the rights of all involved and reasonable people may disagree on where to draw this balance. There may also be a different balance in different fora. This is after all a difficult and somewhat new terrain. The balance we found was to protect the anonymity of our sources who were, frankly, terrified. At the same time, we tried to give as much specificity as we were able to — while protecting our sources — to Isaacs and Achmat to enable them to answer to the allegations. We think this was appropriate for a newspaper report.
The Satchwell panel found a different balance. We respect that but we think her balance was wrong —tilted too far towards the person alleged to have perpetrated sexual harassment than it was towards the women raising these allegations. What we do not respect, however, is for the approach we took to be trashed as “gutter journalism”, without even giving us an opportunity to answer. Indeed, it is supremely ironic that the panel saw fit to insult this newspaper for not giving people an opportunity to respond while simultaneously not giving us the opportunity to do the same.
We are also left open-mouthed by the expression of “disgust” for people that “hide behind” anonymity. We feel that the panel could have expressed its difficulty in dealing with anonymous sources while still expressing compassion and understanding about the structural inequality that leaves women fearful about coming forward. We wonder whether Satchwell was living under a rock during the rape trial of former president Jacob Zuma when “Khwezi” — given anonymity by a court, by the way — was publicly humiliated and in the end was left with no recourse but a lonely exile.
But we accept the criticism that we did not expressly justify why we kept our sources confidential. We thought it was unnecessary; we thought everyone knew how hard it is for survivors to speak out and the kind of secondary victimisation and trauma they have to endure when they do. For the record: we did so because the people we spoke to feared reprisals in their personal and professional lives.
When the M&G reported these allegations, we did not know there would be an inquiry or who would come forward and on what terms. But our report was a faithful recounting of serious allegations after many interviews. We had no agenda, we were part of no conspiracy. We were reporting the news. It’s what we do.
And it is what we will continue to do, including reporting allegations of sexual harassment or abuse.
We will continue to seek the appropriate balance between the rights of all involved and we are happy to debate and learn. But we won’t stop. To stop will be to perpetuate the power structures that have silenced women all this time. More importantly, to stop will be to stop telling the news.