/ 4 February 2021

How the state security agencies approached our reporters

Members Of South African Police Service And Jmpd Monitor Compliance To Level 3 Regulations In Johannesburg
(Sharon Seretlo/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

While discussing the allegations made at the Zondo commission of journalists being on the State Security Agency payroll, our newsroom’s conversation shifted to reporters — not necessarily from this publication — who had also been approached by spooks. Here are two of their stories.

In the mid-1990s, security police tried to recruit reporters covering the campaign of bombings and assassinations by the vigilante movement People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, which began on the Cape Flats but later fanned out in the Cape Town city bowl.

After publishing several pieces, one morning a reporter arrived at work and, on their way to the newsroom, the secretary called them into the reception. “A man wants to see you,” said the receptionist, and pointed to a tall white man sitting on the couch.

He was frank and straightforward. He introduced himself, saying he was from crime intelligence. “We want you to work for us. You hear what they are doing before we do,” was how the point-blank proposition was put to the reporter.

The approach was made in the lobby of the newspaper’s offices and was curtly rebuffed.

“I was thinking of how crazy what this man was asking me to do was. He was putting my life in danger. Just being seen with him frightened me. I told him to leave at that moment. There was no time for him to explain how this would work, and I didn’t want to know. I never heard from him again,” the reporter said.

But years later, a former senior crime intelligence officer confirmed to the reporter that journalists from other media houses were also approached at the time, in one instance successfully.

The people at state security may have changed, but their desire to use reporters had not. Shortly after president Jacob Zuma took office, a new programme of recruiting journalists by the intelligence services began.

One reporter was approached by an intelligence officer and offered a monthly salary, paid into a bank account, which would be provided in return for regular reports on other journalists’ activities, including the international media. 

Several years later, the same journalist received an offer of cash and free international travel from crime intelligence operatives in return for presenting a favourable narrative around its members. Several top crime intelligence bosses had been implicated in the looting of the informer fund in an internal report by South African Police Service General Mark Henkel and were under pressure to make the problem go away.

Both these reporters said no. As is evident from the Zondo commission, others did not turn down the approaches.

The headline of this piece was amended to reflect more than one agency approached reporters.