Suna Venter’s death casts light on media conditions
Constant harassment Venter faced for challenging the status quo at the SABC was a major contributor to her tragic death, says Media Monitoring Africa director
The tragic death of SABC radio producer Suna Venter recently stunned SA and brought to the fore the difficult conditions under which journalists, particularly those at the public broadcaster, have to operate.
Various journalists have been subjected to threats and harassment for their reporting in recent times. On Thursday, the South African National Editors Forum approached the High Court in Johannesburg to seek an order preventing the Gupta-linked Black First Land First and its leader, Andile Mngxitama, from harassing and intimidating journalists.
The request for the interdict came in the wake of a protest by the organisation’s members at the home of Tiso Blackstar editor-at-large Peter Bruce. They were apparently unhappy with his views on the Gupta family.
The Venter family has said that Suna was constantly harassed for her bravery and demanding what was right. She was part of the "SABC Eight" journalists who were fired for challenging former chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s policy to ban the airing of violent protests. All but one of the journalists were later reinstated. Venter, who joined the SABC as a producer at RSG Current Affairs eight years ago, got threatening text messages, was shot in the face with a pellet gun at the beginning of 2017 and her flat was broken into on several occasions, according to her family.
"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. During the past year, she was assaulted on three various occasions," the family said.
Her death was due to a heart condition known as stress cardiomyopathy or "broken heart syndrome" that may have been stress-related. The family believes her condition was worsened, if not caused, by the events of the past year.
Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird, who interacted with Venter on several occasions, agreed that the constant harassment she faced for challenging the status quo at the SABC was a major contributor to her tragic death.
"There can be no question about it [that the harassment contributed to her death]. Suna approached me before she went public about her concerns at the SABC and she said she wanted to inspire others to demand what is right and soon after she went public, she started receiving threats."
Bird said Venter was targeted because she was more junior to the other SABC eight journalists and because she was white and Afrikaans.
"They wanted to send a strong message to the other journalists that ‘if you do not toe the line, this is what will happen to you’ … we know there is still interference at the SABC. There can never be progress until the board stops all the interference and hires the best detectives to find out who was responsible for harassing the journalists."
Media houses and owners should be doing more to protect journalists so that they can go about their work without fear, Bird said.
DA MP and communications spokeswoman Phumzile Van Damme said the party would write to Parliament’s communications portfolio committee chairman Humphrey Maxegwana to request that Police Minister Fikile Mbalula be summoned to provide an update on the investigations of attacks against the SABC eight.
"It has been almost a year since the SABC eight reported death threats, assaults, house break-ins and many other sinister intimidation tactics following their legal action against the subverting of press freedom at the SABC by Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his acolytes mid-2016. It is outrageous that to date, not a single person has been arrested, or held accountable for these attacks … those responsible for the utter terror she [Suna] was subjected to over the past year must be held accountable and brought to book," said Van Damme.
She described Suna as fearless in her fight, despite suffering undue threats, trauma and victimisation.
The SABC paid tribute to Suna, describing her as a principled journalist who stood up in the face of attempts to subvert ethical principles.
During Parliament’s ad hoc committee’s inquiry into the problems at the SABC, the SABC Eight provided details of the despotic reign of Motsoeneng. They said SABC news had become tainted, with politicians constantly dictating how journalists covered stories.
The interim board has made it clear that it will work to root out this culture and make sure journalists are allowed to operate freely.
Right2Know’s Biko Mutsaurwa said the organisation drew inspiration from the courage of Venter and her seven SABC colleagues for their refusal to back down in the face of death threats, bullets and intimidation.
"The secret war that has been waged on members of the SABC Eight, the public broadcaster workers who blew the whistle on mismanagement and censorship, will not be lost on our collective memory."
Venter was also passionate about humanitarian work. She took part in missions organised by the Gift of the Givers in Libya, Gaza, Egypt and Syria.
According to chairman and founder of Gift of the Givers, Imtiaz Sooliman, who was also Venter’s mentor, she was a deep-thinking journalist touched by the suffering of humankind. "She was a voice for the voiceless, an activist for human rights, outspoken and brazenly challenging authority if she disagreed on burning issues. She was forthright, selfless, courageous, brave, and was deeply compassionate about the suffering of people, especially children.
"All she wanted was to make the world a better place and didn’t expect anything in return. She didn’t fear to put her life on the line to achieve these ideals," said Sooliman.
"In Bengazi, Libya, a bomb shook the hotel we were in, but she continued her interview unperturbed, unafraid. Standing in Turkey, overlooking the border with Syria, her heart swelled with emotion, wanting to save everything in that huge human prison, that hell on earth called Syria."
Venter’s father, Phillip, last week described her as a "special child because she was so enthusiastic, so full of life, full of zest and so driven by causes and so excitable about changing things that were wrong.
"In the family, she played that same role. She was the soul of the party … she would get all of us together with her sense of humour and zest for life," he said.
"As parents, we will really miss that child. She had one best friend in the whole world, a soul mate and that was her mother.
"They shared all the secrets, they cried together, they went shopping together. She consulted her on what dress to wear when she reads the news. The fact that people came to pay respects is absolutely awesome, it’s overwhelming."
Venter’s memorial service last Tuesday was attended by family, close friends, journalists and colleagues from SABC. Another memorial service was held at the SABC’s offices in Auckland Park on Thursday.