Ed Herbst on new R3.5m boost for SA investigative journalism

JOHANNESBURG — If it wasn’t for investigative journalists, much of what we know today of state capture and other private and public sector corruption would not have made light in South Africa. Having said this, journalism, as we know it today, is also under huge financial pressure and facing staff cuts across the board that threaten to curb this crucial voice in society. That’s why it’s encouraging to see – as Ed Herbst points out in this article below – that former Naspers Chairman Ton Vosloo has donated R3.5m towards an investigative journalism unit positioned within Media24. – Gareth van Zyl

By Ed Herbst*

When the Gupta Tapes story broke, Independent Media was left high and dry – out of the loop. We were told we had been ignored because it was felt we “could not be trusted”.

And I think our sources were correct in this respect. – Dougie Oakes Daily Maverick 26/10/2018

“The aims of Truth First are, among other things, to encourage quality investigative journalism in the public interest and to promote an honest, free media that exposes transgressions. It must also contribute to a sense of empowerment by enabling South Africans to hold public institutions accountable.” – Ton Vosloo Naspers shareholders launch organisation for investigative journalism 28/2/2019

Two years ago the New York Times instructed three of its leading investigative journalists to withdraw from the newsroom, closet themselves in a special high-security room and to focus exclusively on the origins of Donald Trump’s wealth. On 2 October last year, they released their 4000-word review of more than a hundred thousand documents and, for the first time in its 167-year history, the newspaper accused a sitting US president of fraud.

There are only a handful of newspapers in the world that can afford that sort of commitment but I am reminded that in the late 1970s, Rand Daily Mail editor, Allister Sparks, allowed reporters Chris Day and Mervyn Rees to concentrate exclusively on the Muldergate story and he gave them an unlimited budget which allowed them to visit Eschel Rhoodie in his Ecuador hideaway.

As a result, the incumbent president, John Vorster, was forced into retirement in what became known as the ‘Info Scandal’.

In the case of the 2015 Panama Papers scandal, 11.5 million leaked documents comprising 2.6 terabytes of data proved too much for any news agency to analyse on its own and so the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists posted all the information on its website. This gave 107 media organisations in 80 countries the opportunity to access the information and process it in the context of their local situation and circumstances.

This exposed the tax avoidance strategies of high profile individuals ranging from David Cameron to racing driver Lewis Hamilton and led to the resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson.

Gupta leaks

Much the same process was followed here in February 2017 when a whistleblower handed human rights lawyer Brian Currin hard drives containing what subsequently became known as the Gupta leaks. With the help of Mark Heywood, the information was passed on to Daily Maverick editor Branko Brkic who, in turn, brought the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and News 24 on board. The hard drives were subsequently given to the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture for safe keeping.

Heywood said:

I did not hesitate to play my part and ensure that firstly, the brave whistle-blowers were protected and secondly in ensuring that the evidence was placed in the hands of a group of ethical, professional and courageous journalists, who I believed at the time were best placed to ensure the information was presented in the public sphere in a manner which will lead to accountability.

Which brings me to one of the anchor quotes to this article by the former political editor of the Cape Times, Dougie Oakes who has authored two unchallenged articles about the unchecked abuses occurring at that newspaper.

He answers an obvious question – why was the largest group of English newspapers in the country, Independent Media, not included in the team which eventually put together the Gupta leaks website which is headlined A collaborative investigation into state capture?

The answer, obviously, is that a purge of ethical, professional and courageous journalists commenced within hours of the Sekunjalo takeover by the new owner of the company, Iqbal Survé. Furthermore, the confidante and business associate of the late Brett Kebble not only sought to partner with the Guptas and followed their example by withdrawing his newspapers from  the jurisdiction of the SA Press Council to avoid accountability,  but he also actively supported the Zuma /Gupta nexus and through the Sunday Independent sought to undermine Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign for the presidency.

Making him part of the Gupta leaks investigation would clearly have compromised it from the start.

There is one defining measure for investigative journalism in South Africa and that is the Taco Kuiper award ceremony held in March each year.  The Sekunjalo team, Iqbal Survé and Karima Brown and Vukani Mde and Gasant Abarder took control in December 2013, so let’s look at who the Taco Kuiper award winners were thereafter:

  • 2014 – Amabhungane for The Nkandla Files
  • 2015 – Pieter-Louis Myburgh (Rapport/City Press/News 24) for the Prasa Saga
  • 2016 – Sipho Masondo and Paddy Harper (City Press) – How SADTU decimates our education system one school at a time
  • 2017 – Suzanne Venter (Rapport) – for her coverage of the Life Esidimeni tragedy
  • 2018 – Daily Maverick/Amabhugane/News 24 – The Guptaleaks

What this shows is that not only did ethical journalism die when Sekunjalo took control of the Indy newspapers but so, too, did investigative journalism.

What is ironic but telling is that all the above-mentioned journalists – Brown, Mde and Abarder – have since left Survé’s employ.

Truth First

Which brings me to the second anchor quote on this article and the news that former Naspers chairman Ton Vosloo and his wife Anet have personally contributed R3.5m to bring into being an investigative journalism unit known as ‘Truth First’ which will operate within the Media 24 company.

This is another vote of confidence by leading Naspers executives in the future of our country because, when President Cyril Ramaphosa called for pledges at his Investment Summit in October last year, it was one of ten companies to answer the call.  

Naspers
A logo sits on display inside the headquarters of Naspers Ltd., at the Media24 Ltd. office complex in Cape Town. Photographer: Halden Krog/Bloomberg

The insolvent Sekunjalo Independent Media was not one of them which is ironic because at a 2016 meeting in Cape Town, Iqbal Survé led his audience to believe that Naspers is evil incarnate. More recently, the ‘other Mandela doctor’ accused Naspers – and this website – of being the local equivalent of Bell Pottinger. And before that, in what became known as his ‘Bloody Agent moment’, Survé accused the Mail & Guardian of being a CIA front.

In October 2004, Rhoda Kadalie, a formidable columnist who does not suffer charlatans gladly, wrote a Business Day article headlined Afrikaans Press carries the torch of brave journalism and the multi-million rand donation by the Vosloo couple to establish the Truth First investigative journalism unit proves just how prescient her article was.

That’s the bright side.

In the meantime, Adri Senekal de Wet continues to abase herself and bring South African journalism into further disrepute with a truly heinous attack on Sam Sole, this while Sekunjalo Independent Media continues to haemorrhage staff seeking to escape its taint.

The personnel losses are most marked at Newspaper House – aptly known as  BS House – home in Cape Town’s CBD to the Cape Times and the Cape Argus.

More magic available at www.zapiro.com.

Last year, three editor-level employees resigned from Newspaper House within the space of a few weeks. More recently Cape Times news editor, Lynnette Johns resigned. Tanya Petersen has left Weekend Argus to join E Media’s new second television channel, Open News and the Argus has now lost another valued reporter, Jason Felix who has joined Eye Witness News.

Shain Germaner, disregarding his former employer’s insensate attacks on Tiso Blackstar has resigned from The Star and now works for the Sunday Times.

(One can understand Survé’s animus given the recent Sunday Times allegations about his cavalier attitude to the pension funds of 1.4m civil servants and the pampered life of cloistered luxury he leads while he retrenches wave after wave of his own newspaper staff.)

I have been told that Carlo Petersen has also left Newspaper House. He was promoted after publishing an article falsely claiming that Dr Max Price had ‘acted in bad faith’ and he, clearly following orders, headed a venomous campaign against Price and UCT.  This nefarious campaign saw a white UCT student, innocent of any crime jailed in Pollsmoor Prison and it was a campaign which led ineluctably to the Fallist persecution of Dr Bongani Mayosi and his resultant suicide.

Writing on the wall

Having seen what happened to their peers at The New Age/Afro Voice and read the writing on the wall, Indy staff are looking for other employment with increasing desperation. So substantial has the loss of staff at the Cape Times been that, according to page 31 of the Wits University annual ‘State of the Mediareport for 2108,  the Cape Times – with the exception of the editor Aneez Salie –  does not have a single person in its newsroom with 16 years’ of experience or more. Before the Sekunjalo takeover five years ago it had more than a dozen.

The good news for South African journalism is that Newspaper House refugees are continuing to excel – the former editor of the Saturday edition of Weekend Argus, Chiara Carter has been made editor of the Daily Dispatch and Carryn Dolley has joined the amaBhungane team and I am delighted for her – her reporting on Cape Town’s gang violence and the impact of this on the local police has been stellar.

The South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef) – now led by the dynamic Kate Skinner – has promised the country a vitally-needed commission of inquiry into media capture and credibility. One hopes that people personally affected by the catastrophic consequences of the PIC-funded Sekunjalo takeover of the Indy newspapers, will testify – people Like Wally Mbhele and Azad Essa for example.

Having reviewed the Glynnis Breytenbach book, Rule of Law, for this website, I was asked by its publishers to interview her during a luncheon function in Cape Town last year. During the conversation she unequivocally stated that Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers and the Gupta leaks investigation had ‘saved South Africa’.

That is a singular testimony to the positive role that investigative journalism is playing in our country and the visionary contribution that Ton and Anet Vosloo have now made in founding the ‘Truth First’ investigative journalism unit, is to be profoundly welcomed.

  • Ed Herbst is a veteran journalist who these days writes in his own capacity.