SA needs journalists to stay put and uncover the truth rather than walking out
By fact checking what populists say, journalists — who are digging for the truth — can circumvent attacks, instead of falling prey to them
“The apartheid Stratcom, it’s alive,” EFF leader Julius Malema told supporters in Johannesburg in late November during an address outside the offices of this newspaper.
He singled out a handful of reporters, editors and columnists from various publications for insults and attacks, and branded them the “Ramaphosa defence force”, demonstrating his avid and dedicated consumption of their writing in the process.
The attacks continued the following week. Again addressing supporters in a passionate speech in Pretoria, Malema said the party does not want Sunday Times journalists to attend EFF briefings because, in his view, the publication’s reporters believe he is a bully. He recommended an immediate cessation of current and future interaction and encouraged his supporters to get information directly from the party via social media platforms, predicting a media blackout.
These remarks came in between fights and insults directed at journalists, including one investigating allegations of corruption against senior officials in the EFF.
The response came immediately. Ferial Haffajee, an editor at Daily Maverick and one of the journalists named by Malema, launched a Twitter poll: “Are you going to stand in solidarity with colleagues at @SundayTimesZA and @eNCA and not cover @EFFSouthAfrica and Minister Bathabile Dlamini, both of whom banned media outlets from events and interviews?”
Many others followed, including the editors’ forum, which reportedly called on the media to walk out of briefings when journalists are being targeted. News24 obliged: “We will no longer stand by when politicians like EFF leader Julius Malema belittle and threaten the physical safety of our colleagues in newsrooms.”
I believe this was a knee-jerk reaction, a far too simplistic solution to a far too complicated problem. Replying to the EFF with the same finger its leader raised at the media achieves as much as personal attacks on reporters who use evidence to corroborate corruption allegations.
The challenges facing the media the world over will not be solved by boycotts or walkouts, especially not in SA, where I am ashamed to say my colleagues and I have been complicit in creating the very problem that now threatens our legitimacy. We did so when we sacrificed good journalism for wildly provocative quotes; when we ignored threats because they were directed at Jacob Zuma and his friends.
There was no “walkout solidarity” when Malema verbally assaulted and chased a BBC journalist from a briefing; when the EFF barred ANN7 and The New Age from covering media briefings; or even when Floyd Shivambu assaulted a reporter in broad daylight and with cameras rolling.
Humanity’s relationship with the truth is becoming increasingly complicated. In a world where information is so easily accessible, people rarely dig for evidence, especially if it might challenge something they already believe. This is a great advantage for populists, who often base their attacks on manipulated facts — at least when claims are not entirely fact-free. This only highlights the necessity of a reliable and responsible news media — one that does not entertain self-censorship.
Attempts by individuals such as Malema to manipulate or distort existing facts, or include more than a dash of fantasy for narrow aims, is exactly why journalists should be working harder, even if it means sitting through uncomfortable media briefings or suffering intimidation and insults.
Work harder to hold public figures to account. Work harder to get all sides of a story. Work harder to verify the facts, fact-check allegations, fact-check the “facts”, question statements, push for clear answers, check their own biases and focus on substance as opposed to noise. PR journalism cannot safeguard a democracy, not when the survival of democratic institutions so heavily depends on sentiment and perception. It is the duty of journalists to ensure those perceptions and sentiments are informed by facts.
Instead of leaving a briefing and compromising the media’s ability to fully report on a story, reporters should stay. Stay and ask why their colleagues have been barred, why the party in question deserves a vote when it undermines a crucial part of a healthy democracy, why it opts for secrecy and obscurity when facing clear questions, why it opts for hostility when offered an opportunity to respond to allegations. They should ask the questions their barred colleagues would have asked had they been there, and push, push for clarity, honesty and the truth.
Less than seven hours after issuing its statement about standing in solidarity with fellow journalists, News24 published a fact-check report on the EFF’s allegations against public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan. The investigation not only revealed the fragility of the charges, but exposed the perceived agenda behind them. By merely doing their jobs, a group of journalists brought the debate closer to the truth.
Malema is not the real enemy. Nor is the EFF. The enemy is misinformation.
• Van der Merwe is a Tiso Blackstar Group web producer.