SONGEZO ZIBI: Good journalism almost no longer possible and needs protection
There is an onslaught against the news media by elites who want to discredit it and open up the space for their rampant fake news that suits their agenda
Sitting in one of our prisons serving a life sentence for murder and a further 30 years for fraud, robbery and kidnapping is one Muziwendonda Kunene. I am not certain if Kunene will one day be called to testify before the commission of inquiry into state capture, but he probably should.
In 2005 he gained infamy for a different reason. He was identified as the generator of amateurish, hoax e-mails which revealed an alleged crude conspiracy between the then national director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, then leader of the DA Tony Leon, then deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and other prominent personalities. The conspiracy, the e-mail string appeared to show, was designed to tarnish Jacob Zuma’s name through trumped-up corruption charges.
The whole hoax e-mail conspiracy furore was a farce, but the perpetrators thereof understood the historical culture of the ANC, which is deeply conspiratorial. And so they were taken seriously as they wrought divisions in the party that have never healed.
When the dust settled, the ANC had passed a resolution to abolish the elite organised crime and corruption fighting directorate of special operations, popularly known as the Scorpions. The Scorpions were the FBI and Scotland Yard-trained investigative arm of the NPA. Its investigators and prosecutors had painstakingly pieced together the case against Schabir Shaik and Jacob Zuma. This was done in late 2008.
Meanwhile, Ngcuka had left the NPA in 2004, after having to fight allegations of being an apartheid-era spy, which needed a judicial commission of inquiry to refute. His successor, Vusi Pikoli, was also hounded out of office after he would not make a commitment not to charge Zuma with corruption.
This is how the seeds of state capture were sown, and the news media, often inadvertently, was at the heart of it. Daily news coverage was frenzied, half the time bereft of analytical context and fact-checking, fuelling public support for what the country would later deeply regret.
When Zuma was elected president in 2009, and for years after these acts of disinformation, there was no shortage of journalists and commentators who thought he could produce a higher version of himself. It was an astonishing expectation given the level of deception and brazen lying that had accompanied his rise to power despite a solid criminal case against him being a matter of public record.
So, by the time a very senior government employee handed me, then editor of this newspaper, an “intelligence” dossier titled “Project Spider Web” sometime in 2015, the method had been almost perfected. This included late-Friday or Saturday leaks to Sunday newspapers who would almost certainly rush to publish for fear of being scooped by their competitors who were given similar information at the same time.
The document made scurrilous and fanciful accusations against then finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas and a host of senior Treasury officials. It was clear what the game was; it was another attempt to capture it (the Treasury), too.
It was a Thursday night, and ordinarily, we would have waited for Monday so that we could lead with it. By that time, however, we knew there was a very good chance one of the Sunday papers would run it and feared this would have the damaging effect intended, so we published an online story on the Friday.
I have previously concluded that it is neither necessary nor desirable for editors or journalists to make submissions on the phenomenon. I have now changed my mind and believe carefully framed submissions should be made.Songezo Zibi
We called the dossier what it was, a ham-fisted attempt to discredit the National Treasury at a time when it was delaying Zuma’s attempts to illegally procure 9.6GW of nuclear build from Russia. We also knew there were other pressures, notably irritation with the Treasury’s exercise of its independence, and its insistence on applying the Public Finance Management Act in a government environment that now encouraged impunity.
Other publications went further, such as the Mail & Guardian and amaBhungane, among others. They doggedly pursued stories exposing rampant corruption involving the Gupta network even though the authorities did not want to investigate, let alone prosecute the corrupt.
On the other hand, the establishment of The New Age newspaper and the ANN7 TV news channel were a clear attempt to legitimise what was going on. Using naive, inattentive or bent journalists in otherwise credible publications to do so was no longer sufficient.
In the context of the current commission of inquiry, I have previously concluded that it is neither necessary nor desirable for editors or journalists to make submissions on the phenomenon. I have now changed my mind and believe carefully framed submissions should be made. The news media is a very important part of our democratic accountability system.
Not only do all arms of the state rely heavily on the news media to inform citizens, the latter also rely on it to shine a light on impropriety so that citizens may do something about it. This role is entirely dependent on a sacred relationship of trust between the public and news organisations, and is the reason whistle-blowers report impropriety to journalists.
For various reasons which have to do with persistent attempts at disinformation, grave errors of judgment on the part of journalists and editors, and the attacks on ethical journalists, this relationship is in grave danger.
When one has the right expertise and analytical tools, it is easy to see how political party leaders, followers and bots amplify carefully crafted messaging that has a single aim: to discredit journalism as a trusted source of information.
These attempts extend beyond journalism and include attacks aimed at halting, frustrating or reversing the reforms being driven to repair institutions destroyed to aid state capture. To do this, they exploit existing fissures in society to make consensus impossible, including whether facts are even knowable. Without knowing the facts or who to trust, there can be no democratic accountability.
With deep concern, I am looking at the extent to which Twitter is a raging current of sophisticated disinformation, playing on racial and political divisions, and a recent history of institutionalised corruption to convince the public that no-one is worth trusting. There are no good guys and no good institutions anymore.
The phenomenon is not new and has been used to influence public opinion in the US and Europe. James R Clapper, the former US director of national intelligence explains in his memoir how Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, conducted its sophisticated online influence operations in the US ahead of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
“The Russians are astutely and persistently exploiting this divisiveness with every controversial issue they can identify, and regrettably, we are a very inviting target for them as they target both sides of every issue. They exploit Black Lives Matter by pretending to be hateful white people online, and they incite anger among targeted groups of whites by playing to negative black stereotypes; they engender fear of Muslims among Christians and vice versa; they stoke fear on both sides of the gun control debate; and so on.”
It is the same in SA. A combination of prominent politicians and mysterious Twitter accounts exploit the country’s historical divisions to make consensus on key policy issues almost impossible. The intersection with the news media happens when facts are cleverly interspersed with distortions to disinform and confuse the public.
Requiring deeper analysis in this is whether local politicians are part of the disinformation mix or are useful pawns of a more sophisticated force. This is how Clapper described the interface between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian disinformation efforts:
“But what I did see as DNI [director of national intelligence] is that the Russians and the campaign seemed to employ strikingly parallel messaging in social media posts and public statements, effectively complementing each other to great effect, with no attempt to hide it,” he writes.
And it is true here, too. Mysterious accounts spread fake pictures of alleged farm murders which are in turn retweeted by real white South Africans, and picked up by conservative, right-wing US media to exploit the echo chamber of confirmation bias that Twitter is. Out of this is an international impression that violent blacks, hell-bent on some sort of revenge are committing genocide.
A combination of prominent politicians and mysterious Twitter accounts exploit the country’s historical divisions to make consensus on key policy issues almost impossible.Songezo Zozibi
Politicians on both sides of the ideological line play into this disinformation landscape. They use inflammatory language that encourages their followers not to listen or look at evidence that may help them make informed moral choices in matters of politics. Investigative journalists have become recurring victims of violent language designed to intimidate them so that they stop informing society of the wrongs of the powerful.
These attacks insinuate an evil symbiosis between leaders of public institutions designed to make all of us accountable, such as the NPA and Sars, and journalists who publish information that would be of interest to the same institutions. Once again, there is an attempt to create conditions under which these institutions cannot perform their functions, to discredit their leadership and to replace them with individuals who will not resist their capture.
In this universe, credible journalism is absolutely essential but in SA this is almost no longer possible. Investigative journalists who do very important work to expose corruption are insulted and threatened by politicians and their supporters because this noble profession is no longer sacrosanct. It is contaminated with rogues who peddle lies and selectively release information to further confuse the public and contort its moral consciousness.
Journalism, good journalism, is indispensable. It is a critical arm of the liberal democratic edifice and must be protected. So, what is to be done?
The first step, I think, is for former editors whose incumbency covered the period since 2009 to make submissions to the Zondo commission. They have had a unique position that enables them now to offer insights on how the news media has been manipulated in the past to create conditions under which the public thought the destruction of the state was acceptable or was for its own good.
I think it is important that someone should outline how preventing capture in future is not possible if journalism is weakened, and peddlers of disinformation rule the roost. Leaving those insights out will create a hole in Judge Zondo’s recommendations, which aren’t just for the President, but for all of us.
While many may be grateful at the news media’s role in exposing state capture in the past, it may not be so easy to prevent it in future when the public doesn’t even know who and what to believe anymore.
• Songezo Zibi is a former editor of Business Day.