Defending the media from mob thuggery

William Saunderson-Meyer says the attacks on Suna Venter set a disturbing example


Pledges of solidarity. Black armbands. Prayer chains. The South African public has, with a heart-warming alacrity, rallied to defend the media from mob thuggery.

Were journalists not such instinctually self-effacing people, it could go to one’s head. After all, every reporter is pretty much accustomed to low-grade antipathy from most of the society that they believe they are serving.

However, it is important that among all the hype – the media is never so loquacious as it is when examining its own navel – that the issues are clear in our minds.

Journalists don’t and shouldn’t enjoy any greater protection from mockery and intellectual interrogation than any other citizen. To perceive as a veiled threat a Tweet that wittily advises talk show host Eusebius McKaiser to take a dose of “Biko Syrup”, the “tried and tested Black Consciousness cure for an eagerness to please white people” is pompous vanity.

Also, a reporter obviously has no greater right to safety and protection than any other person. But, also, no lesser right, which is the issue here.

Any campaign of violence that targets the media is a chilling assault on democracy itself. Whatever its many and manifest failings, without a media that is unafraid of challenging the powerful by speaking the truth, the democratic order is doomed.

Last week radio journalist Suna Venter was found dead in her flat, apparently from the effect of crippling stress on an existing heart condition. She was one of the so-called SABC Eight who had defied the then SA Broadcasting Corporation chief's attempts at news censorship.

Venter had been subjected to death threats and abuse. She had to be operated on after being shot in the face with a pellet gun. Her home had been broken into, the brake lines for her car cut and the tires slashed. She was abducted and tied to a tree in the Melville koppies while the field around her was set on fire. 

No one has been arrested in connection with any of the incidents.

It is perhaps the impunity with which the terror campaign against Venter was waged, that has encouraged political groups to now so brazenly defy both political custom and the law, with threats and intimidation.

This week the SA National Editors Forum felt the situation serious enough to apply for a restraint order against the Black Land First organisation and its leader, Andile Mngxitama. The BLF had issued a list of several prominent white journalists that it identified as agents of White Monopoly Capital, “covering up white corruption under the guise of journalism”. The names of some heavy-hitting black journalists were later added as “defenders” of WMC.

One of those journalists, Peter Bruce, editor-at-large of the Tiso Blackstar media group, has been the target of surveillance, smears and threatening protestors outside his home, who demanded that he “go back to Europe” and vowed to occupy his home. When Business Day editor Tim Cohen arrived on the scene he was manhandled, while eTV's Karima Brown, too, was threatened.

The African National Congress has since condemned this BLF’s “intolerance” of other viewpoints. Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, with trademark hyperbole, threatened to “hit them hard”, “to suffocate this (sic) people”, and “to finish them”.

Actually, none of Mbalula’s bluster would be necessary, if the ANC had the courage to go to the source of the rot. As stated in the SANEF court application, the targeted journalists are unanimous that it is their reporting about state capture by President Jacob Zuma’s controversial cronies, the Gupta clan, that has caused their problems.

The BLF has long been suspected to be the funded proxy of the Guptas. Certainly, it has always been quick to defend them, at times with threats of violence. So to put a stop to it all, JZ merely has to pick up the phone and instruct his pals to call off their attack dogs.

It should further be remembered that this wave of threats and violent intimidation against journalists, while unprecedented in magnitude, is nothing new. 

When Julius Malema headed the ANC Youth League, reporters were regularly insulted, sometimes with crude racial and sexual references, and implicitly threatened. The ANC leadership stood mute, then.

Malema, now as leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, continues to threaten journalists. Just a year ago, the Guptas had to apply for an interdict similar to that of SANEF this week, following threats by Malema of “casualties” among those who work for the Gupta’s newspaper and television station, were the Guptas not to quit SA immediately. 

In similar vein, after being roughed up by BLF, Cohen drew a telling parallel with the apartheid years. BLF’s tactics of today, he said, are exactly those used to by the white supremacist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging in the 1980s and 1990s against journalists.

Ah! Such are the ironies that abound in SA. It might make journalism fraught at times, but which hack would deny that it is always incredibly interesting?

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye