By Glenda Daniels – the article was first published in the Daily Maverick.
Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub’s book has not been published in her country yet has sold over 700,000 copies.
This is a testament to how much people want to hear the truth and why independent journalism will always remain relevant. At the weekend, she spoke at an event in Johannesburg on combating online harassment of journalists. It was a pity few politicians pitched.
It would have been beneficial to all had the ANC and the EFF made the effort to attend a roundtable the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) held on Saturday 28 September – World News Day marked by the World Editors Forum.
The date coincided with Unesco’s International Day for Access to Information and celebrated “the work of professional news organisations and the impact they make on the communities they serve”.
On the day, in Hamburg, Germany, South African investigative journalists, including amaBhungane, Daily Maverick’s Scorpio and News24, jointly won the Global Investigative Journalist Shining Light Award for the #Guptaleaks investigations, in a joint honour shared with Rappler from the Philippines.
In Johannesburg on Saturday, the online harassment of journalists and a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on new rules of engagement regarding treatment, safety and protection of journalists were on the table, due to be signed. But this did not happen.
Political parties would have listened to the keynote address of famous Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub, who has gone through indescribable suffering.
But only two parties turned up (out of 14 represented in Parliament) – the DA, represented by Refiloe Nt’sekhe and Cope, represented by Dennis Bloem.
A number of journalists and civil society organisations, including the Special Freedom Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Media Monitoring Africa, the Press Council of SA and the Freedom of Expression Institute, made valuable contributions.
The ANC and EFF would have heard the chilling story of Ayyub, who wrote the best-selling book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up about the 2002 riots which killed more than 1,000 Muslims, an account which her own news organisation would not publish. Ayyub went undercover for eight months as a Hindu nationalist and detailed the killings of Muslims.
She was considered a “weak child” as she had suffered polio, but chose journalism, which requires a robust constitution, because she was “seeing injustice” and “wanted to give voice to the voiceless”.
Ayyub was trolled online and photoshopped into a porn video that was circulated far and wide-reaching untold numbers of people on Facebook and Twitter, including her father’s phone.
This is some of what she said on Saturday:
“They gloated about the loss of Muslim lives. My news organisation refused to publish due to political pressure. My country has never acknowledged the book. There were fake tweets in my name. I was doxxed (meaning her telephone number was posted online). I was sent rape and death threats. Copies of my book were burnt and sent to my house. After seeing the porn video, I was nauseated and I threw up, I was humiliated. Screenshots were on my timeline and on Facebook. I began to have palpitations and I couldn’t eat.
“I suffered a breakdown after the video. I had to be hospitalised and get psychiatric help. I still suffer from anxiety.
“Twitter said the video did not violate policy. Police officers said, ‘Mam, it didn’t happen to you, it’s online.’ They were laughing. Twitter worked with the police, nothing happened, nobody acted on it. Twitter and Facebook reached out but not because they were concerned but because they had to show they were concerned. Last week our prime minister [Narendra Modi] went to the UN to speak about peace and solidarity and in India, he speaks of hate. He has just received millions from the Melinda Gates Foundation for a ‘clean India’.
“Political parties have a role to play in these rape and death threats. Our prime minister follows these Twitter handles [which are threatening me]. There has to be dialogue. We need to engage with Twitter and Facebook on this matter. We need to sensitise political parties. I feel pessimistic.”
During a break after recounting this trauma, Ayyub disclosed that it didn’t get easier talking about it. But she will have to talk about it at book events planned for her visit to South Africa over the next few days.
Talking at this event brought back all the trauma and emotional violence she had suffered and she had to walk outside to get some air.
Ayyub pointed out that her situation was not isolated. For example, Maria Ressa of the Philippines was threatened with rape and murder, body-shamed and even jailed following publication, in Rappler, of her exposures of the corrupt Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte.
In Mexico, Turkey, Syria, Venezuela, China and the Middle East journalists are “disappearing” – a common euphemism for being kidnapped and tortured. The most famous case was Saudi Arabian Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered.
Ayyub has been given a column at the Washington Post. She started her talk half-jokingly recounting that she was recently told: “Great to see you joined the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi was there too.”
In “free” Western democracies, for example, the US and the UK, whistle-blowers are jailed and called “enemies of the people”, a term previously used to describe political enemies.
Also at the Sanef roundtable, former Webber Wentzel, now privately practising, media law expert Okyerebea Ampofo-Anti sketched the legal framework covering journalism internationally and locally, pointing out that according to Unesco, 530 journalists were killed between 2012 and 2016 and women are particularly at risk.
The persecution of journalists is a global problem and these are not isolated cases, said Ampofo-Anti, citing many cases of kidnapping, disappearance, torture and murder.
She stressed that political will and commitment was imperative to stopping violence against journalists, framing the crisis within “patriarchy” and a “backlash” against women. Men don’t like women speaking truth to power, she said. They find it offensive but tend to find their voices anonymously via bots, which are all over Twitter.
Salutary about Ampofo-Anti’s input was evidence that the more this continues the more the truth-respecting public (those outside politics, in other words) will suffer as journalists will self-censor.
“In recent research done in Europe, 15% of journalists said they abandoned the story [after being intimidated], 31% said they toned the story down, 23% said they withheld some information. Not everyone is like Rana,” said Ampofo-Anti. “Journalists were asking: ‘Am I willing to put my children’s lives at risk.’ Silence results.”
The roundtable might have contributed to a better understanding between journalists and the parties who vilify journalists. At the moment, the EFF targets journalists (unless the journalists are waving the EFF flag) who uncover corruption within their party, in the way the ANC of former president Jacob Zuma (and his enablers who made and continue to make excuses for his corruption) do. For them, it’s in the interests of the country if journalists sing praise songs in the way China’s patriotic “journalists” do.
Journalists don’t want or need to be liked. But they demand political leaders take the lead, that threats of violence stop so that they can do their job of informing the public of the truth and holding the powerful to account.
Instead of engaging, the EFF has been attempting to subjugate journalists by “banning” them from their events, though it has no power to ban the reporting of news. Its supporters, also attack journalists on social media, with threats of rape and murder dished out liberally.
Sanef took the EFF to the Equality Court on August 2019 to argue that the party had enabled an environment of intimidation and harassment of journalists. The EFF argued it had no control over its supporters. Judgment has been reserved.
These developments form the backdrop to Saturday’s roundtable and formulation of the draft MOU.
- Download the Sanef Proposed MOU on The Treatment Of Journalists
- Download presentation by Media legal expert Okyerebea Ampofo-Anti
Meanwhile, many in the ANC have one foot in its Stalinist past and one foot in democracy. They do not understand why we need journalists to be independent and hold power to account. Politicians shake their fingers at journalists, like ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte’s rant to an eNCA journalist: “Who do you think you are? … lord of the media … you just a journalist”. It would be comical if it were not so tragic.
The DA are no angels either, especially considering former leader Helen Zille’s remarks and attacks on journalists on Twitter.
The way forward: Important points from the event
Duarte’s discourse would be in violation of many resolutions and declarations internationally. These range from the UN’s Article 19 on Universal Declaration of Human Rights where “everyone has the right to receive and impart information”, through Unesco’s resolutions on the safety of journalists, to our own Constitution in the Bill of Rights, section 16, which says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression which includes freedom of the press and other media.”
The MOU lists 17 points to cover journalists’ safety. These include no harassment on and offline, no intimidation, no forcing a journalist to reveal their sources, no encouragement of party supporters to accost journalists in their homes and public spaces, and no parties disclosing to supporters or the public, personal information about journalists, such as their contact details.
These were on the table.
The DA raised this: “What about false accusations by the media?”
This was relevant in the light of some journalists having tainted themselves recently. For example, allegations have been made at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture about corrupt journalists and media companies.
Cope’s Bloem questioned whether there was any point in just two parties signing an MOU. Besides, they would obviously have to get the mandate of their parties before making any agreement.
It was suggested that the MOU on issues of online harassment and safety of journalists be put forward as a motion in Parliament. Bloem felt if the MOU was taken to Parliament, with an ANC majority, it would surely be meddled with or blocked.
The plan now is that the political parties present will be given a month to discuss the MOU.
Regarding “soft law” and international organisations, Lawrence Mute, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in Africa, pointed out that organisations keep framing new resolutions and new working groups, on top of old declarations. Do we need more of this? he asked.
The meeting concluded that big media tech companies, particularly Twitter and Facebook, need to be tackled. They should be made to pay up when their platforms are used to spread the kind of vitriol and misogyny Ayyub experienced – such as fake porn videos.
It was also clear that the media must clean up its act and play fair. Crooks in the craft of journalism (those alleged to be involved with political parties and those constantly making mistakes) and those who do PR for political parties and pose as journalists, should leave the journalism landscape.
If the public can trust journalism more and be supportive of the profession and individuals who serve within it, the Ayubbs of the world and the truth will win.
Disclosures and declarations: Glenda Daniels is an associate professor of media studies at Wits University, a Sanef council member, a press representative on the Press Council, a Sacomm executive member, a feminist and media freedom activist. She writes here in her individual capacity.