Here’s to those who won’t be si­lenced

CityPress - - Voices - Janet Heard voices@city­press.co.za

‘Jour­nal­ism is print­ing what some­one else does not want printed; ev­ery­thing else is pub­lic re­la­tions.” The gen­e­sis of this quote dates back a cen­tury or so ago and was later pop­u­larly at­trib­uted to Ge­orge Or­well.

The quote is as apt to­day as it was back then. It ex­plains the tra­di­tional func­tion of the me­dia, but also hints at the level of risk that comes with pub­lish­ing in­for­ma­tion that oth­ers want to cover up.

Jour­nal­ists have al­ways known the risks of pay­ing the price for dig­ging for dirt, es­pe­cially in coun­tries with re­pres­sive me­dia laws. Jour­nal­ists in South Africa have op­er­ated within a free press en­vi­ron­ment since democ­racy in 1994, so the risks here have seemed small in com­par­i­son to coun­tries such as Turkey, where 150 jour­nal­ists are in jail.

About a month ago, the lo­cal me­dia in­dus­try be­gan grap­pling pub­licly with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of on­line fake news, ac­com­pa­nied by the bul­ly­ing of jour­nal­ists, par­tic­u­larly those in­volved in #Gup­taLeaks rev­e­la­tions.

The in­dus­try has since been shaken by the tragic death of SABC ra­dio jour­nal­ist Suna Venter, one of the “SABC8” who ex­posed the reign of ter­ror at the pub­lic broad­caster. Ac­cord­ing to her fam­ily, she died of “bro­ken heart syn­drome” af­ter a year of stress, threats and ha­rass­ment.

Venter’s death co­in­cided with phys­i­cal ha­rass­ment and threats by Black First Land First against jour­nal­ists who have been ex­pos­ing state cap­ture.

Now that the me­dia in­dus­try has been con­fronted with real risks that ex­tend beyond name-call­ing, news­rooms are tak­ing steps to en­sure tar­geted jour­nal­ists get the sup­port that they need to con­tinue do­ing their jobs.

Be­sides the risks in­volved, it is tough go­ing try­ing to pin down the facts these days be­cause of the so­phis­ti­cated ma­chin­ery of pub­lic re­la­tions spin and in­fes­ta­tion of fake news.

It will be hard for the cor­rupted to un­der­stand that jour­nal­ists are not mo­ti­vated by the same prin­ci­ples that they are guided by. These jour­nal­ists will not be bought or swayed, al­though in any news­room there are al­ways a few who take chances with the code of ethics and oth­ers who have ul­te­rior mo­tives. In the 1980s, for ex­am­ple, I worked in The Star news­room in Jo­han­nes­burg with crime re­porter Craig Kotze, who later con­firmed our sus­pi­cions that he had been op­er­at­ing as a spy for the apartheid gov­ern­ment all along.

Thanks to the ef­forts of a tena­cious bunch of in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters and ed­i­tors, in­for­ma­tion that oth­ers hope to sup­press has been seep­ing out, from the Pas­sen­ger Rail Agency of SA train fi­asco and Water­gate ex­posé to the SABC hor­ror show and un­fold­ing Gup­ta­gate rev­e­la­tions. Some are vet­eran jour­nal­ists who ex­posed apartheid atroc­i­ties. Oth­ers are much younger, some even from the born-free gen­er­a­tion. These jour­nal­ists of­ten strug­gle to make ends meet, they shun of­fers of bet­ter-paid, cushy pub­lic re­la­tions jobs from gov­ern­ment and mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal, not to men­tion bribes and gifts. They are a di­verse bunch, mo­ti­vated by an old­fash­ioned de­sire to muck­rake, with­out fear or favour. And they won’t be si­lenced.

She died of ‘bro­ken heart syn­drome’ af­ter a year of stress, threats and ha­rass­ment

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