Of diversionary retaliation
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