Obituary

Suna Venter, SABC journalist hounded for resisting censorship 1985-2017

02 July 2017 - 00:00 By Chris Barron

Suna Venter, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 32, was one of the "SABC 8" journalists who were fired in 2016 for refusing to obey an instruction not to cover violent protests.
The instruction came from the de facto head of the SABC at the time, chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng. When he heard about their stand he instructed his head of news to get rid of them.
After being fired in June, they launched a Constitutional Court application to have the SABC's censorship policy declared unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, in July they won a Labour Court case against their dismissal and were reinstated.
That August, parliament's portfolio committee on communications sat, but the journalists were refused permission to testify. The SABC was exonerated, and the committee thanked senior executives and the board for their excellent work.
The SABC 8 were vilified by ANC members of the committee as unruly, insubordinate employees who got what was coming to them.
After that the journalists amended their Constitutional Court application, asking the court to hold parliament in breach of the constitution for not holding the public broadcaster accountable, and to direct parliament to launch an inquiry.
Brake cables cut
Two weeks later, under growing public pressure and with the support of ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, an ad hoc committee was appointed. It produced a devastating report that led to the minister being replaced, an interim SABC board being appointed and Motsoeneng dismissed.
It was a resounding victory for Venter and her colleagues, but they paid a high price, enduring a sustained campaign of intimidation.
Venter received many death threats. She was shot in the face with a pellet gun and had to have surgery to remove the pellets, which came close to hitting her in the eye. The brake cables of her car were cut, her tyres were slashed and her flat was broken into.
She went into hiding and her car was broken into while parked outside the secret location where she was hiding.
She was abducted from her flat at around 1am one day and taken to the Melville Koppies. After being told that "tonight you're going to die where you were supposed to die" - an allusion to a recent incident when ceramic bullets were fired at the windscreen of her car while she was stopped at a nearby intersection - her abductor tied her to a tree and then left after setting the grass around her on fire.
Venter managed to use her cellphone to call 10111 but got no response. Then she phoned a police station, which said they'd send a van but never did. At 4am she sent a WhatsApp to her boss and SABC 8 colleague Foeta Krige, who rescued her and called an ambulance. Venter was bruised and badly traumatised, but determined not to back off.
"I have to tell myself I will not allow them to terrorise me. And I will not," she said.
'Were you brave?'
Venter was born on April 15 1985. She matriculated at Ho�rskool Florida in Johannesburg with nine distinctions. After graduating from the University of Pretoria with a BA, she taught kindergarten before joining SABC Radio eight years ago as a producer of current affairs programmes.
Tattooed on her arm was the line "Were you brave?" It was a question she asked of herself every night before going to bed. And answered every day.
In 2009, when Gaza was being bombed by Israel, Venter spent eight days there visiting hospitals and delivering medical supplies and food with Gift of the Givers, while filing "live" reports for the SABC on what it was like for the civilians living in that hellhole.
In 2012 she sent reports from near the front line in Libya, which was being torn apart by civil war.
She wanted to report on the war in Syria. The SABC wouldn't let her, so she took leave and, using her own money, went there via Egypt and Jordan. She did live crossings for the SABC from Damascus and Aleppo for two weeks.
Captured by troops
She was captured by government troops, interrogated for a couple of days and told to leave Syria.
In December last year, a couple of weeks after being tied to the tree at Melville Koppies, Venter went back to Syria.
She asked a Syrian doctor she met in Turkey to take her into the country. When he said it was too dangerous, Venter hired guides to smuggle her across the border from Turkey at night.
She wanted to go to Aleppo, but her guides said it was too dangerous and refused to take her. She left Syria after one night.
When she got back to Johannesburg the death threats continued.
Shortly before dying Venter was diagnosed with a cardiac condition, stress cardiomyopathy or "broken heart syndrome". It is believed this was exacerbated, if not caused, by the trauma and long periods of unnatural stress she endured.
She was found dead in her flat in Windsor West, Johannesburg, on Thursday.
She is survived by her parents, Phillip and Christa Venter, and siblings Wilhelm and Tessa.

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