We got it wrong, and for that we apol­o­gise

Sunday Times - - Insight Apology - By BON­GANI SIQOKO Sun­day Times Ed­i­tor

We have spent the past few weeks re­flect­ing on our re­port­ing of al­le­ga­tions of po­lice killings in Cato Manor in KwaZulu-Natal and the il­le­gal de­por­ta­tion of Zim­bab­weans to face ex­e­cu­tion in their coun­try — known as ren­di­tions. These sto­ries were writ­ten by a team of se­nior jour­nal­ists and pub­lished in this news­pa­per in 2011.

As re­porters and ed­i­tors we have an eth­i­cal and jour­nal­is­tic duty to in­ter­ro­gate sus­pi­cions of abuse of power, ac­cu­sa­tions of wrong­do­ing, and any other in­ci­dents that are in the pub­lic in­ter­est. We did just that in these sto­ries, bas­ing our de­ci­sion on news value, pro­fes­sional judg­ment and the pub­lic’s right to know.

We were in pur­suit of noth­ing but the truth and we were not mo­ti­vated by po­lit­i­cal, com­mer­cial or per­sonal in­ter­ests. We stood to gain noth­ing from re­port­ing on these is­sues but merely ful­filled our con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tion to in­form you.

But we ad­mit here to­day that some­thing went wrong in the process of gath­er­ing the in­for­ma­tion and re­port­ing the Cato Manor, Sars and Zim­bab­wean ren­di­tions sto­ries. This is af­ter we en­gaged con­struc­tively with all key par­ties in­volved in the sto­ries.

What is clear is that we com­mit­ted mis­takes and al­lowed our­selves to be ma­nip­u­lated by those with ul­te­rior mo­tives. I will first deal with our mis­takes.

Take our head­line on the first story about the Cato Manor unit as an ex­am­ple. It la­belled the unit a death squad. We were not qual­i­fied to la­bel it as such, and in our body of work we cer­tainly pre­sented the sto­ries as al­le­ga­tions. Our head­lines over­stated the con­tents of the re­ports.

We had grounds to be­lieve that the con­cerns raised by hu­man rights ac­tivists and other sources that there were sus­pi­cious po­lice killings in the area war­ranted in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Of the 45 deaths that oc­curred as a re­sult of the ac­tions of the Cato Manor unit, we con­sid­ered 18 sus­pi­cious and we based our re­port­ing on these.

But at the time of gath­er­ing the facts and re­port­ing on these cases we were made aware that the courts had al­ready ruled on at least six of the killings and found them to be jus­ti­fied. Even though we had this in­for­ma­tion, we failed to present it in a prom­i­nent way that would have re­sulted in a bal­anced and fair piece of jour­nal­ism that re­flected both sides. We have re­ported on the out­come of some of the killings, but the de­ci­sions re­gard­ing the rest are still pend­ing.

We also cre­ated the im­pres­sion that Gen Jo­han Booy­sen was op­er­a­tionally in charge of the unit and by as­so­ci­a­tion was di­rectly and per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for the killings. The unit was in­deed un­der the ul­ti­mate com­mand of Booy­sen, and we made this clear in our re­ports. How­ever, the tenor of our re­ports sug­gested that there were no other com­man­ders be­tween him and the unit. We also never vig­or­ously ques­tioned the role and re­spon­si­bil­ity of the sec­tion and unit com­man­ders who were op­er­a­tionally re­spon­si­ble for the unit.

Booy­sen has told us he was not di­rectly in­volved in the op­er­a­tions of the Cato Manor unit. We have no rea­son not to ac­cept his ver­sion. We should have made it clearer that he ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the unit in the ca­pac­ity of pro­vin­cial head.

While we were in­ter­ro­gat­ing, in­ves­ti­gat­ing and re­port­ing these sto­ries, there was clearly a par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal project aimed at un­der­min­ing our demo­cratic val­ues and de­stroy­ing state in­sti­tu­tions, and re­mov­ing in­di­vid­u­als who were seen as ob­sta­cles to this project. We ad­mit that our sto­ries may have been used for this pur­pose. It is this project that also tar­nished our re­ports on Sars.

There was fe­ro­cious in­fight­ing within state in­sti­tu­tions, and war­ring fac­tions were pre­pared to use state or­gans to set­tle scores. In the process, vil­lains be­came he­roes, and he­roes fell as the tec­tonic loy­alty plates shifted vi­o­lently, as we have seen in the case of for­mer Hawks head Anwa Dra­mat and Gen Shadrack Sibiya of the Gaut­eng Hawks, and Sars of­fi­cials who be­came tar­gets of this po­lit­i­cal project.

That we al­lowed our sto­ries to be abused for this pur­pose, we apol­o­gise.

Were we aware of this par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal project? The an­swer is no. But we should have joined the dots. We should have paused and asked more ques­tions. This is our duty as jour­nal­ists. Were we ma­nip­u­lated by our sources and some of those who were part of this par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal project? Per­haps. Were we com­plicit in en­sur­ing the achieve­ment of their goal? No. But as a con­se­quence, our sto­ries might have given them grounds, rea­son and mo­tive to achieve their ob­jec­tives.

For that, we failed you. We failed SA. We deeply re­gret it.

This does not nec­es­sar­ily mean these forces could have been stopped had we not writ­ten these sto­ries. Should we have ig­nored these sto­ries upon un­cov­er­ing a par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal project? No. There was, and is, a mid­dle path that we should have taken. We should have re­ported on these in­ci­dents but with cau­tion and care, aware of the hid­den hand, the ma­nip­u­la­tion and po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions at play. We should have been more bal­anced in our re­port­ing. We should have been fair and re­flected all sides. We should have in­ter­ro­gated our sources more in­tensely.

As jour­nal­ists we have our own ver­i­fi­ca­tion tools and we should have used them bet­ter — af­ter all, jour­nal­ism is noth­ing more than the dis­ci­pline of ver­i­fi­ca­tion.

Had we been more rig­or­ous in our ap­proach, this could have at least changed the tenor of our ar­ti­cles, added a new di­men­sion, pro­vided us with a bet­ter per­spec­tive and helped us un­cover this par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal project. In that re­gard, again we failed you.

We failed you by in­ad­ver­tently al­low­ing sin­is­ter forces, who were hell­bent on de­stroy­ing our in­sti­tu­tions, to abuse our trust and use some of our sto­ries to carry out their ob­jec­tives. We unintentionally tainted our sto­ries by nar­rowly fo­cus­ing our re­portage on in­ci­dents without re­flect­ing a broader pic­ture of the fac­tional bat­tles and po­lit­i­cal wran­gling be­hind the scenes, within the ANC, in the govern­ment, state in­sti­tu­tions and law en­force­ment agen­cies.

That could have al­lowed us to re­port on these in­ci­dents while re­flect­ing on the im­pli­ca­tions and po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of our re­ports. That could have al­lowed us to un­der­stand that the truth was a ca­su­alty be­tween war­ring fac­tions bat­tling for po­lit­i­cal power.

As we said two years ago, our sys­tems, struc­ture and pro­cesses led to our fail­ure and we have no ex­cuse but to ac­knowl­edge that and apol­o­gise.

Hav­ing apol­o­gised for such fail­ures, this does not nec­es­sar­ily mean we will in fu­ture not re­port any sto­ries that are tainted by a par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal project. We will con­tinue to carry out our duty to in­ves­ti­gate, re­port the abuse of power and hold the pow­er­ful to ac­count. But we prom­ise ex­tra vig­i­lance, hon­esty, cau­tion and ex­er­cise of care.

If this means that we must bring in ex­ter­nal ex­per­tise to look at how, in the face of such pow­er­ful ma­nip­u­la­tors and ped­dlers of fake news, to nav­i­gate such a ter­rain in pur­suit of the truth, we will.

Our jour­nal­ists worked very hard on these sto­ries de­spite their short­com­ings. They won awards in pro­fes­sional com­pe­ti­tions that were ad­ju­di­cated by lead­ers in the in­dus­try. How­ever, on re­flec­tion and given the cir­cum­stances and the man­ner in which our re­ports be­came en­tan­gled in the par­al­lel po­lit­i­cal project, I be­lieve it is only just and fit­ting for us to humbly re­con­sider our de­ci­sion to ac­cept such pres­ti­gious awards. We felt a sense of pride when ac­cept­ing recog­ni­tion from our peers, but ac­cept­ing such ac­co­lades will be a nega­tion of a higher jour­nal­is­tic ideal. It is for this rea­son that we will be re­turn­ing all the awards and the prize money.

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