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Protection of sources: M&G is fighting solo

By Akanyang Merementsi

From 2009, the Mail & Guardian has revealed shocking details of corruption in tenders awarded to Bosasa by the department of correctional services. This was also at the same time the company was investigated for other corruption-related activities dating back to 2004/2005.

This week, the newspaper has been fighting a court battle with Bosasa. The company wants the newspaper to reveal its sources – an unreasonable request considering the freedom our media enjoys in the country.

As I write this, both the company and the newspaper are awaiting judgment on the matter.

It would be a sad day if the court ruled in the company’s favour: that the newspaper should reveal its sources and hand over all the other requested documents (that it may want to use as evidence in proving its innocence, if ever). If the court should rule in the M&G‘s favour, it will be a great victory for the newspaper especially taking into account its commitment to fight to the bitter end (my emphasis) to protect its sources.

Bosasa sought to use the UK’s Leveson Inquiry into the “hackgate” saga involving News International titles. Like the M&G’s lawyers argued before the court, I doubt this UK argument by the company would stick because surely the laws regarding media freedom are not the same in the two countries.

I am not sure if I’m being unreasonable or if it is indeed the case that the South African media – be it print, online and/or broadcast media except the M&G itself – has been very quiet on the challenge the newspaper faces. I pray to God it is not the former.

My concern (assuming the above observation is true) is that if the judgment sways on the side of Bosasa and not the M&G, it would have a great and detrimental impact on not only print, but also broadcast and online media. It would mean all media platforms (broadcast, print and online) would from now on be forced to reveal their sources despite undertaking to fight tooth and nail (my emphasis) to protect them. It is therefore very clear that no one with information – however incriminating – would dare approach newspapers with the hope of an independent investigative journalism exposé as they would have before. No one would dare risk their lives.

The case, sadly, happens at the time when the media is under great threat by the government’s proposed regulations – the Protection of State Information Bill, the Media Appeals Tribunal etc – which are widely regarded as attempts to silence investigative journalism and whistleblowers. This is despite the fact that freedom of the press and freedom to receive/impart information is enshrined in the Constitution.

My concern is exacerbated by the fact that there were only two organisations – the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and the press freedom NGO Section 16 – that joined the battle to help the M&G fight to protect its sources. Although Sanef represents many newspapers in the country, one would have expected individual newspapers to use their editorials (especially during this week) to express their concern about the impact Bosasa’s threat – if confirmed by the court – would have on the industry in general.

It is in cases such as this one – another example being Independent Newspapers’ successful court bid to gain access to the ANC’s “brown envelope journalism” report involving one of its titles – that the media has to stand together, hand in hand, and not seen to be drifting apart especially when the judgment, if ruling against one of their peers, would have a greatly negative impact on them doing their jobs.

One would have also expected opposition parties who were pro-press freedom (Cope, DA and IFP) to back the newspaper. In fact the DA and IFP asked government to launch a probe into the Bosasa saga a few years back, but none of these parties have come forth to defend media freedom and the protection of sources and whistleblowers in this case.

What does this say about our media? Is this a sign that each media house should fight its own battles?

I remember vividly that when Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi Wa Afrika was arrested after exposing the multi-million rand property rental scandal involving Bheki Cele in 2010 – an act which, it later emerged, was politically motivated – many newspapers and editorials expressed great concern on the negative impact his arrest would have on the Sunday Times and investigative journalism in this country.

Another case in point involves the M&G and the Presidency over the latter’s refusal to release a report on Zimbabwe’s 2002 election, claiming it contains confidential information for the eyes of the president only (my emphasis). The case, which began in 2009, has since been sent by the Constitutional Court back to the court that last heard the case to determine (probably by reading) whether the report contains sensitive and confidential diplomatic information, as has always been claimed by the Presidency.

I do not remember reading newspaper editorials in support of the M&G at that time, which should’ve said that the report – commissioned by former president Thabo Mbeki to investigate whether the 2002 election was free and fair as was declared by South Africa and Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF at the time – should be released as it is in the public interest. None.

It is therefore sad, if not shocking, that at the time when all pro-press freedom supporters should be coming together and supporting each other – whichever way possible – the M&G seems to be fighting its battles alone, with just two other organisations supporting them.

I personally support the M&G‘s fight to protect its sources because, like the Guardian‘s Nick Cohen eloquently put it on February 5, “The maxim that journalists must never reveal their sources is about the only moral principle we have. At its noblest, it recognises debts of honour.”

Cohen said: “Informants give you information in the public interest and say that their career, liberty or life depend on keeping their name confidential. You promise to protect them and must keep your word. More prosaically, journalists reason that if we reveal sources, other sources will not take the risk of speaking to us in the future.”

But M&G, it seems you’re on your own.

Akanyang Merementsi is a 26-year-old male working in the South African mining industry. He is a self-confessed media freak and is passionate about the industry. He also enjoys politics. Akanyang blogs at www.akanyangafrica.wordpress.com

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    • http://hismastersvoice.wordpress.com/ The Creator

      If the Mail and Guardian wishes to take on a corporation, I wish it well. (I just wish it would take on the forces responsible for real problems in this country, but of course that would be too much to hope for.) But I see no reason why I have to waste my time and money supporting it. Nor does anybody else have to.

    • Rich Brauer

      @The Creator: “But I see no reason why I have to waste my time and money supporting it. Nor does anybody else have to.”

      You see supporting a vibrant media as a waste of your time?

      If Eskom started dumping toxic waste on your house, and your local councillor refused to respond, wouldn’t you want the media to publicize your case?

      If you were running a business, and your competitor bribed his way into a contract, wouldn’t you want that to be publicized?

      Or is it that nothing of the sort has ever happened to you, and you’re unable to see anywhere beyond that?

    • Balt Verhagen

      As shocking as the attitudes of indifference towards press freedom Akanyang expresses concern about is the very non-creative attitude of e.g. The Creator. It is no less than mortifying that the defense of South Africa’s freedom, so carefully enshrined in its Constitution, is casually dismissed as not worth someone’s ‘time and money’.

      Corruption, deeply ingrained in the excesses of apartheid, was taken over seamlessly by many ‘liberators’ who became the willing targets of those who wanted to buy influence in the post-apartheid state. Political correctness and sense of guilt muted expressions of unease at the early growth of a cancer that has now deeply infected and often paralysed most organs of state, much of the private sector and sown metastices into the very bases of grassroots existence..

      The sense of laissez-faire and downright indifference to those who have the courage to take what could be the final stand against those who would rob us of our freedoms to hide corrupt practices bodes darkly of the future that awaits us all. A darkness that is already descending on millions of the poor who realise the utter impotence of the state ever to ameliorate their condition.

    • Balt Verhagen

      Balt Verhagen, contnd.

      In 1947, a year before the political ascendancy of Afrikaner nationalism, historian Arthur Keppel-Jones wrote his “When Smuts Goes”, a speculative history of South Africa, supposedly written after 2010. Such extrapolations into the future can be hazardous, but this perceptive historian nevertheless got much of recent history right. He quotes analysts writing about a debilitated South Africa in 2010 that the ’Government in power looks after its members and supporters by any and every means that may be necessary..These are the fundamental reasons for the present conditions of the Republic. Violence, trickery corruption, the exploitation of the public…these are the inevitable fruits of such a plant’. And further: ‘How many, as they let their minds wander over the past, can remember the cross roads and the signposts where their national ox-wagon took the wrong road though another road was available?’

    • MLH

      South Africans are indeed a bit slow at coming forward, but I put it down to having too much on our minds. You go, M&G, we’re all right behind you.

    • http://www.akanyangafrica.wordpress.com Akanyang Merementsi

      I would first like to say that many of those that have already commented have COMPLETELY missed my point: that other media houses are failing and have failed to support the M&G in its fight to honour an undertaking to protects its sources that had informed it of what was happening at Bosasa and Correctional Services Department at the time.

      1. Why are other media houses not saying anything on this case by either supporting not to reveal its sources or that the sources’ identities should be revealed to Bosasa?

      2. Why is it that it’s only two organisations, SANEF and SECTION 16, that have supported M&G in its fight to protector sources and or whistleblowers to date?

      3. Why have there been no newspaper (print and or online) editorials in support of M&G to not reveal its sources?

      4. Why hasn’t Right2Know campaign been supporting M&G?

      To be continued….

    • http://www.akanyangafrica.wordpress.com Akanyang Merementsi

      For example: a few weeks back Cosatu launched Corruption Watch whereby corruption-related activities can be submitted/handed in/leaked anonymously. Assuming I submit information from SABC to Corruption Watch for further investigation. Mind you this is information that I believe to be of corruption-related activities. And also note that I chose not to submit this information to the Police/SIU/Public Protector for reasons only known to me (because, say, I do not trust the cops).

      And following the inquiry it is further established that corruption is rife at SABC and the findings are then passed on to SIU for prosecution consideration by Corruption Watch. However, it later emerges that the SABC want to clear its name at the SIU inquiry and thereby demands Corruption Watch to reveal my identity. So SABC takes Corruption Watch to Court to do so (reveal my identity as its source).

      1. Should Corruption Watch give in to SABC’s demand that my identity be revealed and that it should had over all the documents that I had leaked to it?

      2 If my identity is revealed, do you think there will ever be any person leaking any corruption-related activities to Corruption Watch?

      To be Continued…

    • http://www.akanyangafrica.wordpress.com Akanyang Merementsi

      And because of the example provided above:

      1. Why is Corruption Watch so quiet on the M&G matter?

      2. Why is Cosatu not saying anything because what M&G did (by taking the leaked information and digging further is exactly what it would do with its Corruption Watch campaign)?

      3. And why are the other Pro-Press and Pro-Media freedom supporters (COPE, DA, IFP, Public Protector, Law Society of South Africa, The Midrand Group, etc) not supporting M&G, except only being quiet on this matter?

      4. Why is Print Media South Africa also quiet on the issue because this certainly affects many of its print media members?

      I know there are instances whereby “sources” are even used by the media even when it is not necessary. Or, at times – as ANC’s Jackson Mthembu has noted in M&G sometime last year – some “sources” are given more space than persons given authority to comment on any matter of any particular/concerned organisation.

      And this is different matter altogether (for another blog entry, or seen such blog entries on my blog) because most of such stories do not relate to corruption-related activities such as this one of Bosasa, hence my support for M&G not to reveal its sources.

      Isn’t this challenge of not revealing sources’ identities the same problem that other publications have faced previously or are likely to face in the future?

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      Whats really strange is why our media mafia believe that they should not be accountable to laws and standards of journalism thats common practice throughout the world. Democracies cannot function for too long with a media mafia owned and controlled by the privileged 1%.

    • Enquirer

      Akanyang, you make some good points, and in a sense the silence of support is deafening.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Maybe the other media houses just don’t want to give publicity to their competition at M & G ?

    • Balt Verhagen

      @Akanyang

      Your statement that “many of those that (sic) have already commented have COMPLETELY missed my point” presumably also applies to my comments.
      Indeed, I did not address the specific issue of the protection of informants or whistleblowers; I addressed the wider historical setting. The M&G grew out of the Weekly Mail that was established by former journalists of the then Rand Daily Mail was closed down by management under pressure from the National Party government. The RDM, under the courageous editorship of Laurence Gandar had become far too outspoken and the Weekly Mail continued the struggle against almost continuing onslaughts, with scant support from the mainline press, that toed a much more comfortable commercial line. It is uncanny how “… the period was so far like the present period..” The National Party saw to it that it established a comfortable and largely uncritical (white) middle class to support its exploitative policies; the ANC saw to the rapid establishment of an additional comfortable and uncritical black monied layer to it. The means used in both these processes are the very stuff that now, as in days gone by, is the subject of investigative journalism and its reliance on informants and whistleblowers.
      ….contd.

    • Balt Verhagen

      contd….

      Ultimately, the fundamental issue remains the same: the economic situation of the overwhelming majority of the people in this country. Malan and Verwoerd tried to maintain the status quo through an unworkable apartheid or ‘separate development’ structure that kept its middle class happy and masses under tight control; the ANC feeds the system liberation slogans and promises of development for which it has failed to ensure the means.

      Keppel-Jones astutely saw this thread running through the history of South Africa for the first half of the twentieth century and saw little that indicated a change in its direction. The false turns of the ox-wagon alluded to by his fictional historian are of course the ongoing exploitative economic basis of this country which predicated the educational and economic under-development of its masses. This apparent historical inevitability seems like a Greek tragedy. It is based on the fact that true visionaries saw the need for a selfless, dedicated leadership that would systematically educate and equip the population as a whole, in other words, turn the ox-wagon onto the “other road”. These visionaries were always trumped by the exploitative system and its mediocre minions of whatever stripe. Madiba is one of the few still living of these visionaries.
      contd…………

    • Balt Verhagen

      contd….

      Akanyang, you keep on asking why, why why this silence, your cri de coeur in the face of this onslaught on the media. Keppel-Jones ends his book by quoting a 62 year old “man of European descent” surveying the dismal state South Africa had drifted into post 2010. “…Nothing has been spared us. What have we done to deserve this? Why have we had to suffer this? Why?”.