South Africa: Could it happen overnight?

A journalist records a speech during a march in Cape Town. Investigative journalist Craig McKune writes about several recent cases where journalists are exposed to threats in South Africa. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp (CC BY-ND 4.0)

- I explained how South Africa is very violent... "Yet, the bad guys do not seem to hurt journalists for some reason", I said... How wrong I was. 

Written by Craig McKune* (photograph on the right) 

Tales of intimidation

One year ago, in Oslo, a group of journalists traded tales of intimidation, arrest, repression and murder.

The Russians had a list of dead colleagues. An African journalist was forced to work in exile, while a Briton had hired bodyguards to guard against men who lurked outside her home.

That was Clare Rewcastle Brown. She showed photographs of a corpse cemented into an oil drum and thrown into a swamp – a public prosecutor in the sprawling 1MDB Malaysian corruption case, which she has diligently covered.

I was there in Oslo. We were hosted by Publish What You Pay Norway, which had arranged a conference to focus on financial transparency and the working conditions of journalists.

I felt I had little to add. In South Africa, journalists were rigorously exposing corruption without fear of physical harm.

I explained how South Africa is very violent. There has been a spate of political killings, and our government and many in our ruling party are hostile to journalists. Our police, public prosecution and other state agencies appear to work in service of a corrupt elite.

Yet, the bad guys do not seem to hurt journalists for some reason, I said.

Clare raised her hand and cautioned me. It happens overnight, she warned. You have to be vigilant.

How wrong I was.

The SABC 8

Wind back about six months to mid 2016.

The chief operating officer of the SABC, our state broadcaster, had issued orders to censor the news. Among these orders were that the SABC would not show any videos of attacks on public property.

The attacks were part of widespread civil unrest brewing in South Africa, fuelled by poverty, corruption and a weak, racialized economy.

A campaign group called Right2Know took the streets to protest the SABC censorship.

Then the SABC banned its journalists from covering the Right2Know protests. A number of its reporters objected, but they were suspended.

More SABC journalists spoke up, and they were also suspended.

This group came to be known as “the SABC 8”. They went on to fight their suspensions in the Labour Court, and they fought the censorship in the Constitutional Court.

The story captured the public imagination – but the journalists were fired

They also came under attack.

Just a few days after I had said in Oslo that South African journalists were not being attacked, 32-year-old Suna Venter walked out of a Johannesburg take-out restaurant, where she was shot in the face with an unidentified weapon.

Surgeons later removed metal pellets from her face.

She was one of the eight.

Over the months, Venter received numerous threatening messages on her phone. According to her family: “Her flat was broken into on numerous occasions, the brake cables of her car were cut and her car’s tyres were slashed. She was shot at and abducted – tied to a tree at Melville Koppies, while the grass around her was set alight."

She later died of broken heart syndrome.

When her body was found on June 29, 2017, her family said it believed her heart condition was exacerbated but probably caused by the stress of the fight with the SABC and her anonymous bullies.

“White Monopoly Capital”

On the same day that Venter’s body was found, a small mob gathered outside the house of Peter Bruce, a well-known news editor and columnist.

The mob called itself Black First Land First, or BLF. Their placards read: “Peter you murder the truth”, “Peter Bruce wa Hemba [you are lying]”, “Land or death” and “Peter Bruce propagandist of WMC”

This situation and “WMC” need some explaining.

Since about 2010, South African journalists have investigated and reported on the brothers Tony, Ajay and Atul Gupta and their relationship with President Jacob Zuma.

The Gupta brothers had earlier moved to South Africa from India. They befriended Zuma, employed two of his children and one of his wives (polygamy is legal in South Africa) and expanded a network of South African businesses in computers, mining, media and more.

Increasingly credible corruption allegations surfaced. The Guptas had allegedly influenced the appointment of Zuma’s cabinet ministers, stacked the management and boards of state-owned companies and extracted a toll from companies applying for state contracts.

Recently, we reported that the Guptas used a web of offshore companies to channel kickbacks from state contractors to buy a house for one of Zuma’s wives.

Facing a flood of negative press, the Guptas hired the UK firm Bell Pottinger to buff their reputation and redirect public resentment.

This ended spectacularly, when the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) later investigated and expelled Bell Pottinger.

It then went out of business.

Among the PRCA’s findings, it said Bell Pottinger’s work for the Guptas “was by any reasonable standard of judgement likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa and appears to have done exactly that.”

Linked to the Guptas’ campaign was an army of apparently fake social media accounts and websites that attacked journalists and campaigners. Journalists like Bruce were painted as racists seeking to protect “white monopoly capital”, or “WMC”.

One such website calls itself “WMCleaks”. It purports to expose “black ops under guise of investigative journalism”, the “political regime change campaigns” of journalists and their funders and the evil intentions” of the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, where I work.

It calls us the “Biased Centre for Investigative Journalism” and claims my colleague Sam Sole is “suspected of being a former apartheid spy” and “kills blacks”.

He was not a spy and does not kill anyone, by the way.

WMCLeaks features dedicated pages targeting six named journalists who it brands “WMC Paid Media”. These include Bruce and Sam.

Such attacks on the reputations of journalists are now common. For example, a blog called “CorruptionWatchers” has similarly targeted “marionette” Clare Rewcastle Brown for her reporting on Malaysian corruption.

The authors and funders of WMCLeaks and CorruptionWatchers are anonymous.

BLF vs amaBhungane

After the protest at Bruce’s house, BLF promised to stage more protests at the homes of other journalists who it named and branded “askaris”.

In South Africa, “askari” is an inflammatory term used during apartheid to brand liberation fighters who changed sides and joined the oppressive regime.

The journalists, including amaBhungane, went to court and won an interdict banning BLF from further intimidating or harassing them.

Ten days later, my amaBhungane colleague Micah Reddy joined a television panel discussion with the BLF leader Andile Mngxitama, where they debated “fake news” and a recent leak of data from a Gupta company. We dubbed the trove and the stories #GuptaLeaks.

AmaBhungane has been central to the #GuptaLeaks reports, which expose evidence of influence peddling, kickbacks and money laundering.

Among the revelations was that, on at least one occasion, the Guptas commissioned Mngxitama to write an article criticising another journalist. Mngxitama denied this.

Describing what happened after the television panel debate with Mngxitama, Micah wrote: “As soon as I exited the studio, in the courtyard of the building, about five men and women who were walking with Mngxitmana suddenly started to heckle me. They were gesturing and shouting at me at once, accusing me of spreading fake news and making other assertions that I could not quite make out amid all the noise and confusion. Their demeanour, however, was unambiguously threatening.”

Micah described the actions of one man: “As I was walking away, he and his associates ran after me cursing… one particularly aggressive individual (wearing the BLF T-shirt) had got close enough to lash out at me with a kick.”

Micah escaped unharmed, but when he tried to lay charges at the nearest police station, the officers refused to take his statement.

Three weeks later, amaBhungane hosted a public discussion about the #GuptaLeaks, which had become a news sensation. A group of several dozen people interrupted. They sang, shouted and physically threatened people.

The BLF’s Mngxitama was there again. Please click on the following image to see the video:

In a later statement, another amaBhungane journalist Stefaans Brümmer said: “As it seemed that the persons who were causing the disruption were associated with Mngxitama, I went to him to enter dialogue on how to restore calm. I probably put my hand on his shoulder to make contact. I did not ask him to ‘stop your bullshit’ (as Mngxitama had claimed), but I did ask him to “please control your people” or similar words.

“Mngxitama stood up, grabbed me with two hands and tried to shove me to the ground, shouting words like ‘you fuck with me’. A second person then threw me to the ground.”

Again, no one was seriously hurt.

Not long after, a court found BLF and Mngxitama to be in contempt of the earlier interdict. BLF was fined and Mngxitama was sentenced to three months in jail – although the latter conviction was suspended at the request of the journalists who made the application.

The judge extended the original court order to protect all journalists from BLF harassment.

Exposed

In recent months, News24 investigative journalist Caryn Dolley, a close friend of mine, has written a string of articles describing an underworld war on the streets of Cape Town.

Mobsters and their foot soldiers fight one another to control nightclub security and, presumably, the right to trade drugs and access other illicit economies. They meet in the shadows with senior politicians and police officers, monitored by layers of competing spy groups – unofficial and official.

After Caryn watched and photographed one meeting between a politician and an implicated businessman, the latter emailed her: "I don't think I need to explain to anY ONE who I meet or why! I meet lotsa people all the time would you like to no WHO THEY ARE ASWELL [sic]."

He followed up with a sinister message: "WE HAVE EYES EVERY WHR [sic]." This was accompanied by a photograph of Caryn as she staked out his meeting with the politician.

Among her reports, Caryn described how the organized criminals used guns smuggled from police vaults – apparently with the help of police officers.

In August, she received another message, this time anonymous. It said: “Ms doley!That. same. guns. that. the. cops. sold. is. going. to. be. used. on. your. head. at. work. or. your. house. or. your. mom. house. and. your. dog. [sic]”

What now?

Is Clare’s warning realising itself?

I do not believe South African journalism is nearly as terrifying as it seems to be in places like Mexico, Somalia or Russia, where journalists are violently targeted.

But what stops us from joining places like that?

I think I have a few answers. Our courts. Competing muckrakers digging in the same swamp, but also looking out for one another. Well organised civil society groups. Most importantly, I think, a feisty population that supports and values its journalists, and which has stared down a repressive regime before.

But I am not confident that this is enough.

 

* This article was written by Craig McKune (upper-right photograph) and is part of a project "It happens overnight" funded by Fritt OrdCraig McKune is an investigative journalist with amaBhungane. He writes here in his personal capacity.