Of di­ver­sion­ary re­tal­i­a­tion

Mail & Guardian - - News -

be a prom­i­nent jour­nal­ist with a big voice and be liked. From my early years in jour­nal­ism, I de­vel­oped a hard per­son­al­ity as a de­fence mech­a­nism. To al­most be­come a bitch, who didn’t care what people thought.”

Long be­fore her en­tan­gle­ment in the Zuma story, she placed her­self in the fir­ing line as a young re­porter cov­er­ing the Inkatha-anc con­flict zones in Kwazulu-na­tal for the Sun­day Times. “Some­times I would be on the scene of a mas­sacre be­fore the po­lice got there, so I would stand there and hold some­body’s hand while they died. And then af­ter­wards try to tell the story dis­pas­sion­ately. I had no idea that we were un­der­go­ing trauma for a sus­tained pe­riod of time. None of us did.”

She laughs now about her gung-ho ap­proach in the killing fields. “I was re­ally stupid. Once a war­lord said to me, ‘How do you still stay alive? You know we tried to kill you so many times. You must have a very strong muthi. How is that you don’t die?’ And I hon­estly don’t know. I was able to go into con­flict zones on my own.

“When Si­fiso Nk­abinde, the Rich­mond war­lord, was killed, I went there on my own and sat on this de­serted road out­side his home and waited for his body­guard. He had also been shot and I knew he was be­ing dis­charged from hos­pi­tal.

“Even­tu­ally the body­guard stood up in the bushes and said: ‘What are you do­ing?’ And I said: ‘I’m wait­ing for you.’ And he said: ‘But I can shoot you.’ And I said: ‘Ah, but I know you won’t.’ I didn’t ask him any ques­tions then, but then he said: ‘Can you come back to­mor­row?’ So I did, and he told me what hap­pened. He told me who had shot Nk­abinde. And he took me to his hide­out, where his guns were hid­den, and our pho­tog­ra­pher came and took pic­tures of them.”

Even in peace­time, there is an emo­tional toll on jour­nal­ists. We are more vul­ner­a­ble to de­pres­sion than most other pro­fes­sions.

“You’re sup­posed to re­flect every­day re­al­ity — the good and the bad and the ugly,” said Munusamy. “But more of­ten it’s the ugly that’s the story. And you’re there, at the coal­face of the ugly. And at times the ugly pen­e­trates you.”

Nowa­days, Munusamy is cov­er­ing an­other war — a dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion war. Like all high-pro­file jour­nal­ists who com­mand large au­di­ences in the fre­netic trenches of Twit­ter, Munusamy is both an ob­server and a par­tic­i­pant.

That am­bigu­ous po­si­tion adds grist to the mill of Malema and his right-wing pop­ulist equiv­a­lents — United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Hun­gar­ian leader Vik­tor Or­bán, for­mer United King­dom In­de­pen­dence Party leader Nigel Farage and Brazil’s pres­i­dent-elect Jair Bol­sonaro. It’s easy to launch a pop­ulist at­tack on the main­stream me­dia, which, for all its real flaws, has been forced into an semi-ac­tivist role to main­tain its moral cen­tre. The po­lit­i­cal com­mit­ments of jour­nal­ists are eas­ily framed as un­pro­fes­sional bias.

But jour­nal­is­tic ethics have never re­quired the era­sure of con­science. To at­tempt an im­par­tial commentary on a mafia state, and on those who de­fend its dor­mant re­mains, would be ab­surd.

“There’s no pos­si­ble way for me to try to be ‘fair’ on the Gupta agenda. Never go­ing to hap­pen,” said Munusamy.

So what hap­pens now? How do jour­nal­ists re­port dis­pas­sion­ately on an er­ratic and venge­ful ac­tor like the EFF, which scorns the old rules of en­gage­ment?

Un­til four or five years ago, there was an awk­ward and tense but broadly re­spect­ful dance of mu­tual de­pen­dency be­tween politi­cians and the me­dia. No longer. The brawl of Twit­ter has stopped the dance.

For Munusamy, there is no easy way out of this toxic dy­namic. “The de­bate now is whether [the EFF] was given too much of a wide berth — whether it got too much at­ten­tion.

“And when I cov­ered the last US elec­tions, I saw their me­dia go­ing through ex­actly the same con­vul­sions with Trump. On the eve of the elec­tions, they were say­ing, ‘Oh fuck, did we cre­ate this? And what do we do now?’”

The stakes are al­ways high when the press is cast as an en­emy of the people, as Munusamy saw dur­ing a visit to Tur­key in 2015. At the time, Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan was be­gin­ning his per­se­cu­tion of re­porters and ed­i­tors. “I kept ask­ing people why they were re­ally not both­ered by it,” she said. “Life was go­ing on as nor­mal. Jour­nal­ists would be ar­rested or sued, and there was no ou­trage in so­ci­ety about it. And that is how it built up to the stage where Tur­key now has the most jour­nal­ists in jail in the world.”

Press free­dom in South Africa re­mains far from the Tur­key sce­nario, but only vig­i­lance — both out­ward and in­ward — will keep jour­nal­ists free.

Des­per­a­tion: The EFF has launched an at­tack on some jour­nal­ists to di­vert at­ten­tion from its links to the VBS bank heist. Photo: Alais­ter Russell/sowe­tan/gallo Im­ages

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