Reporters were themselves the story

17 July 2011 - 03:08 By Joe Latakgomo

When is it acceptable for newspapers to turn their own journalists into the story? Most editors having to wrestle with this issue will, unless there are compelling reasons, decide against.

They would all agree that advocacy, self-promotion and situating the journalist in the story is not objective reporting.

This issue was brought to the fore by several telephone calls following a Sunday Times report on death threats to investigative journalists Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter.

The newspaper reported that it had stepped up security around the journalists following revelations that their movements were being monitored and a series of other incidents. These included Wa Afrika being pulled off the road by what he thought were policemen and having a gun put to his head.

Several questions were raised:

  • Was the newspaper not perhaps crying wolf?
  • If the incident referred to by Wa Afrika took place in April, why did the newspaper report on it only in July?
  • To what extent has the information from Wa Afrika been corroborated, including the incident where he was allegedly "dragged out through the car window by one of the men who pointed a firearm at his forehead"?
  • Was the passenger in Wa Afrika's car interviewed for the story?
  • Would publication not encourage anyone who had a gripe against Wa Afrika to act under this subterfuge?
  • Finally, did the main headline reflect the body copy?

Avusa Media's editor-in-chief, Mondli Makhanya, responded to the issues raised.

He said that the newspaper had first become aware of the threat to its reporters in December, but the incidents had become "more sinister" in recent months.

Wa Afrika and Hofstatter were warned by intelligence sources that they were "marked men".

The information was from long-established intelligence sources. The Sunday Times was satisfied of their credibility.

At the time of the first incident, the newspaper's executives had decided against publishing a report about it.

However, two weeks ago, their sources warned the reporters that the threat had escalated and that the issue was now "very serious".

Again, the editorial executives, together with the newspaper's legal adviser, discussed the issue.

Following this discussion the newspaper decided to publish.

Makhanya believes that the story published is a fair account of events which could have serious consequences for the journalists concerned.

Intimidation of journalists is not a matter to be taken lightly. It is an international scourge.

No editor wants to have to live with the burden that the choices he or she makes result in harm.

After Iraq, Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalists, and in some countries, journalists have been terrorised into watering down their reports because they live in fear.

This is not the kind of environment we would want to see in our country.

The two journalists have rattled some powerful political cages.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that so far in 2011, 22 journalists have been killed around the world - and a frightening 868 have been killed since 1992.

This means we have to be absolutely vigilant as a society against this kind of wanton killing. It is significant that in breaking down the statistics, most of the journalists killed worked the political and crime beats.

In 14% of the cases they had exposed corruption and in 55% of the cases they got on the wrong side of political leaders.

The week after The Sunday Times published its report about the threats to its journalists, Colombian journalist Eduardo Gomez, who was a witness in a probe into links between politicians and paramilitary groups, was killed.

Could this happen here? The answer is "yes".

The family of a key witness in a prison murder trial - who was shot in cold blood by a group of men who said as they pumped bullets into his body that they had "told him" - will attest to this.

This hit served one major purpose: the victim had already given evidence, so it must have been intended to warn others.

No doubt these other witnesses went away quietly, scared to risk their own lives. It would have been a victory for the crime syndicates and corrupt officials.

Several whistle-blowers on corruption have been murdered in Mpumalanga and elsewhere in the country.

Public protector Thuli Madonsela says she fears for her life. Corruption buster Willie Hofmeyr has himself been accused of corruption.

The police deny threatening to arrest Madonsela. All of this reminds me of the days of apartheid dirty tricks.

Why does corruption matter, and why should we as a nation care?

Corruption violates human rights and impacts on democracy. Corruption leads to dictatorships. It is a barrier to economic development.

Press freedom cannot thrive in the absence of genuine rule of law. That is why it is important for Wa Afrika and Hofstatter, and other investigative journalists, to continue rooting out this evil through reporting on corruption wherever they find it.

Readers of Avusa Media newspapers surely do not wish to see our country going down the cliff - all because our media have been cowed into silence.

The article was clearly and carefully crafted to avoid most of the issues raised - it sought not to appear to be crying wolf and not to take the issue of journalists becoming the story lightly. The headline at first glance looks neutral enough, however much it might sound like advocacy.

It might have been useful for Wa Afrika's passenger to also have been interviewed.