By Ilham Rawoot
Writing a good investigative story is hard work. It’s not a matter of sitting down at a computer and typing away. It takes a lot of time, talking to many sources, going through documents, research and asking questions to people implicated or involved.
This includes putting allegations to people and getting a response. What’s scary, however, is the lack of co-operation we so often have to face from government spokespeople and departments.
This week alone, we had to beg for responses from two government entities, one of which responded two days later, long after deadline, their response followed by an email threatening to sue if we got any information wrong due to us not being able to include their responses.
The spokesperson had not taken my calls during the week, nor responded to my emails and text messages. The other entity didn’t bother to respond at all.
They did, however, put their PR people onto me, who passed on the message that they insisted on meeting with not only me, but my news editor or deputy editor, if we wanted a response from them. It is not practice for editors to attend meetings with the people we write about, unless their surnames are, say, Obama or Zuma. When I told my subjects my editors couldn’t attend, they refused to meet.
What these spokespeople don’t understand is that it’s their job to meet with us. Taxpayers pay them to be the mouthpiece for government, and if they avoid the media or make us feel like they’re doing us a favour so much of the time, then who else is going to tell us what’s going on?
Secondly, they should want to respond. It’s a good thing to be given the opportunity to have your say, to justify yourself, explain allegations or even convince us with hard facts that there’s no story! Yet they run from us like we’re blood-dripping hounds.
This week’s problems are merely symptomatic of the government’s general adversity to the media.
At the same time that I was facing difficult spokespeople, our editor-in-chief, Nic Dawes, and colleagues, Stefaans Brümmer and Sam Sole, were in Parliament, making representations about the consequences of passing the draconian Protection of Information Bill, which will make it harder for investigative journalists to obtain information and easier for government to classify documents they wish to.
And on Thursday evening former minister Essop Pahad and the Gupta family launched their newspaper, The New Age, and said it would report more on the “positive” side of South Africa and less on investigative journalism.
What does all of this mean? It is our job as journalists to uncover the truth, warts and all. It is obvious the government wants to make life harder for us to do just that.
Where will this all end? Hopefully around a coffee table, and not in the trenches.