South Africa's best investigative journalism of 2009

Speech by Professor Anton Harber at Taco Kuiper Awards, March 26 2010

Speech by Professor Anton Harber at the 4th Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Awards, Johannesburg, March 26 2010

It is my pleasure now to announce the 4th Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Awards and to ask Judge Cloete to hand them out. To remind us of what it is we are here to celebrate today, it is this: an outstanding example of investigative journalism broadcast or published by South African media during 2009.

Something happened with our competition this year, and we are still trying to work out why. We had many more entries than in previous years, from a wider range of media outlets than ever before: a total of 44 entries from 16 outlets. They came from print, television, radio and online media.

For the first time, we had entries from the SABC, Radio 702, Politicsweb, Sake24, Business Times and the Highlands Herald.

The judges were very pleasantly surprisd at the quality of work that ran through the entries. This is, of course, the best evidence that pockets of journalistic excellence exist all over the country, mostly individual or small groups of journalists who are digging deep to shine their torches into dark places, both in the public and the private sector.

As one of the judges, Justice Malala, put it: "I feel very positive about the future of South Africa after reading and watching these entries. Certainly, our democracy is vibrant and our media is even more so. If this country continues to produce this quantity and volume of investigative work, the politicians and shady businesspeople are in trouble."

If there is a theme to this year's entries, it is that journalists are filling the gaps left by authorities when they fail to do their tasks, whether it is tender officials allowing fraud, finance regulators not keeping a proper eye on things, prison or prosecuting officials doing shoddy work, or sports officials not calling their own people to account. Where they did not do it,  journalists often stepped in and did it. So that the ANC, or the taxman, might be reluctant to do lifestyle audits on public figures, but the journalists are doing it anyway. You have to be struck by how important a role investigative reporters are playing in the building of the openness and accountability so essential to our democracy. Today's award is a tribute to all of those who do this work, sometimes in challenging conditions.

Before announcing the winners, I will share some of the observations made by the judges. When we sit down to look at these entries, we enjoy the rare perspective of seeing the best stories of the year lined up to be debated and analysed. Judges noted that:

  • entries came from both younger and older journalists, showing a good mix of experience and new enthusiasm and energy. Hopefully, this means that journalists are staying in the trade and breaking the pattern of being kicked up to management as soon as they have experience and skill.
  • Every one of the top entries had a major impact on the world around it, giving us hope that our work is not just reflecting but also changing our society for the better
  • Entries dealt not just with the political, but with the environmental, with white collar crime, or the socio-economic environment. It is not only politicians who are being called to public account, but all those who hold positions of responsibility.
  • The quality of presentation of the best work was consistently high. In previous years, we have had cause to bemoan the fact that some promising entries were harmed by shoddy editing and design, negatively affecting their readability. Not so this year.
  • A special mention should be made of a very good entry from the Highland Herald, which describes itself as "the voice of the eMakhazeni Municipal Region" in Mpumalanga. It is heartening to see local stories in local papers which can compete on a national front. Well done to the publisher/journalist Charles King.

I must also express a serious concern of the judges: the country's biggest and most popular medium, radio, is under-represented in both quantity and quality of work. Radio is an excellent medium for investigative work, but it is not happening.

All of this meant that the judges had a more difficult time than ever before. Our nominations panel spent many hours just making a shortlist of 10 entries. And for this, I must thank Simphiwe Sesanti, Ed Linington and convenor Margaret Renn.

The panel of judges also had many hours of interesting and fascinating debate about the merits of different aspects of the stories presented to us. Allow me to introduce the panel:

Judge Tom Cloete, of the Valley Trust and the Supreme Court of Appeal

Justice Malala, well-known writer, editor and publisher

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, our international representative who has a long and distinguished career in journalism.

Margaret Renn, who holds our Taco Kuiper Chair in Investigative Journalism at Wits

and I served as convenor of the panel

I will move straight on to identifying the shortlist of 10, in no particular order:

1. Pearlie Joubert of the Mail & Guardian for "ANC spin doctor Carl Niehaus admits fraud" (see here):

Acting on what was at first just a snippet of information, Pearlie pieced together a range of evidence that this much-respected ANC representative had left a trail of serious debt and deception. Several anonymous sources confirmed aspects of Pearlie's story, but none would go on the record. She gathered the details, confronted Niehaus himself, and got her scoop. Niehaus was forced out of office. It was perhaps the first of the lifestyle audits, conducted by the media when the authorities fail to do it.

2. Julian Rademeyer and Felix Dlangamandla of City Press/Rapport for "Shabir Shaik caught violating medical parole" (see here):

There were plenty of rumours and claims about Shabir Shaik violating his parole, but it was these two journalists who set out to clinch the story, doing their background research, staking out his house and waiting ... It took plenty of time and patience, but their photos and interviews were incontrovertible. They knocked down once and for all the myth that Shaik, the friend and funder of our president, was out of prison for health reasons.

3. Thanduxolo Jika of Daily Dispatch for "Dying to Live" (see here):

This was enterprise journalism at its best, tackling the difficult issue of xenophobic violence. Jika cunningly talked his way into prison to interview a multiple killer, and his photographer went the extra mile, at some personal risk, by staying with the Somalians in their home where attacks were happening. The result was not just a riveting front page series, but excellent online multimedia work which took the work to a national audience and brought home most vividly the prejudices and fear at the centre of the attacks on foreigners.

4. Sisan Puren and Devi Govender of Carte Blanche for Chicken Run (see here)"

What began as a fluffy animal cruelty story, with a dodgy politician thrown in, became a major scandal involving large amounts of provincial and international funding money. The story appears at first to be about a chicken-breeding operation run with cruelty and disregard for health laws; then we come across a former MEC who is lying through his teeth, and finally we discover that he has raised international donor money under false pretences and at the expense of a local community. Carte Blanche took a little story and made it big, and the end result was multi-layered, well-crafted and well told. Lots of hard slog. Great television. The judges make special mention of Devi Govender's excellent interviewing and presentation, so central to the unraveling of this story.

5. James Myburgh of Politicsweb for "Did Mpshe plagiarise a Hong Kong judge?" (see here):

This one also began with a hunch around the reasons given by the National Prosecuting Authority for dropping charges against President Zuma, and Myburgh used his research skills to great affect, exposing a crucial prosecutorial decision for the second-rate work it was. Interesting here is that this is new journalism, based entirely on internet research. It was an exercise of finger-power rather than shoe-leather, but it was meticulously done with devastating effect. It was too late to change the decision, and it did not stop the Minister of Justice trying to make the culprit into a judge of the High Court, but Myburgh did expose this decision for the political fix that it was.

6. Lucky Sindane of Mail & Guardian for "Chuene's trail of lies" (see here):

Everyone was on to the story of Athletics SA chief Laurence Chuene's lies around gold-medla winning Caster Semenya, but the M&G made sure they were ahead, got their hands on emails and other documentary evidence that Chuene was lying and nailed the man to the proverbial mast. It became an international scandal and Chuene lost his post shortly afterwards.

7. Adrian Basson of the Mail &Guardian for "Kitchen Confidential - the Bosasa saga" (see here):

Tenacity is an essential quality for an investigative report and Adriaan showed it here. He has been on this story of corruption in Department of Correctional Service tendering for years, and was a previous Taco Kuiper winner for it. But he did not let go until he had the headline everyone wants to climax an investigation: "We have the proof". Heads have rolled in Correctional Services.

8. Rob Rose of Financial Mail/Sunday Times for his series on "South Africa's Madoff" - the series of stories on fraudster Barry Tannenbaum and the way in which he took some of South African biggest and most respected businessmen and investors for a ride (see here):

Financial journalists have been criticised in the last couple of years for the stories they missed. Rob came through here with a really good tale, carefully pieced together and well told, exposing a major fraudster. You cannot take on an apparently respectable business person like this without solid information, checking and double-checking in great detail - and Rob did it. Tannenbaum might have fooled some of South Africa's best-known investors, but not Rob Rose.

9. Johann Abrahams and Godknows Nare of the SABC's Special Assignment for Hell Hole, an expose of horrifying conditions in Zimbabwe prisons:

We were very pleased to see an excellent entry from our national public broadcaster in what was a difficult year for those who work there. The singular achievement in this story was to get a secret camera into the prison and get the visuals which make this story so powerful. What they show is neglect to the point of starving prisoners to death and it was horrifying to watch.

10. Fred Kockott of the Independent group of newspapers for Shoot to Kill (see here):

Fred showed great courage in exposing what appears to be the work of police hit squads systematically taking out suspects in a police murder. This story took plenty of hard work, lots of thought on how present it effectively and a big dollage of guts. A chilling and very important story. The best investigative reporters are those who are prepared to swim against the tide; when many were calling for harsher actions against criminals, Krockott was prepared to take on the fact that police may be going too far, seriously too far, in dealing with criminals.

So, how does one choose from such an array of excellence? We take into account whether the story broke new ground, its distinctiveness, the courage it required, the investigative techniques used, the time and hard work involved, the writing, editing and presentation, credibility, fact-checking and ethical conduct, the impact of the story, and the extent to which it is something journalists will be proud of. It must in the end be something journalist will hold up as an examplar of  our profession and how we can contribute to this young democracy. There are lots of good stories there, but we seek out the truly exceptional. We don't give out an array of awards in multiple categories - we give one and one runner-up.

Let me take it step by step. We first got this list of 10 down to five stories, and these were:

-          Fred Krockott's  Shoot to Kill

-          Rob Rose's Tannenbaum story

-          Carte Blanche's Chicken Run

-          Daily Dispatch's Dying to Live.

-          Mail & Guardian's Carl Niehaus story.

That is the short, short list.

The next step was to take it down to the two stories which would be winner and runner-up respectively, and this took a long debate, discussion and analysis.

Choosing between these two was no easy task. But I am very pleased to say that the Taco Kuiper 2009 Award for an outstanding example of investigative journalism goes to:

-          Rob Rose of Financial Mail/Sunday Times.

And the runner-up is:

-          Carte Blanche's Chicken Run

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