Onslaught against news media relentless

Credible journalism is absolutely essential, but in SA this is almost no longer possible, writes Songezo Zozibi
Credible journalism is absolutely essential, but in SA this is almost no longer possible, writes Songezo Zozibi
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Sitting in one of our prisons serving a life sentence for murder and a further 30 years for fraud, robbery and kidnapping is one Muziwendonda Kunene.

In 2005, he was identified as the generator of amateurish hoax e-mails revealing an alleged crude conspiracy between then national director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, then DA leader Tony Leon, then deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and others.

The conspiracy, the e-mail string appeared to show, was designed to tarnish Jacob Zuma’s name through trumped-up corruption charges.

The hoax e-mail conspiracy furore was a farce, but its perpetrators understood the historically conspiratorial culture of the ANC.

And so they were taken seriously as they wrought divisions in the party that have never healed.

When the dust settled, the ANC had passed a resolution to abolish the elite organised crime and corruption fighting directorate of special operations, the Scorpions.

The Scorpions were the FBI and Scotland Yard-trained investigative arm of the NPA.

Its investigators and prosecutors had painstakingly pieced together the case against Schabir Shaik and Zuma in 2008.

Meanwhile, Ngcuka had left the NPA in 2004, after having to fight allegations of being an apartheid-era spy, which needed a judicial commission of inquiry to refute.

His successor, Vusi Pikoli, was also hounded out of office after he would not make a commitment not to charge Zuma with corruption.

This is how the seeds of state capture were sown.

When Zuma was elected president in 2009, and for years after these acts of disinformation, there was no shortage of journalists and commentators who thought he could produce a higher version of himself.

It was an astonishing expectation given the level of deception that had accompanied his rise to power despite a solid criminal case against him.

So, by the time a very senior government employee handed me, then editor of Business Day, an “intelligence” dossier titled “Project Spider Web” in 2015, the method had been almost perfected.

This included late-Friday or Saturday leaks to Sunday newspapers who would rush to publish for fear of being scooped by their competitors who were given similar information at the same time.

The document made scurrilous accusations against then finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas and senior Treasury officials.

We called the dossier what it was — a ham-fisted attempt to discredit the National Treasury at a time when it was delaying Zuma’s attempts to illegally procure a nuclear build from Russia.

Other publications doggedly pursued stories exposing rampant corruption involving the Gupta network

On the other hand, establishing The New Age newspaper and ANN7 TV channel were a clear attempt to legitimise what was going on.

In the context of the current commission of inquiry, I have previously concluded it is neither necessary nor desirable for editors or journalists to make submissions on the phenomenon.

I now believe carefully framed submissions should be made.

The news media is an important part of our democratic accountability system.

This role is entirely dependent on a sacred relationship of trust between the public and news organisations.

For various reasons which have to do with persistent attempts at disinformation, grave errors of judgment on the part of journalists and editors, and attacks on ethical journalists, this relationship is in danger.

It is easy to see how party leaders, followers and bots amplify carefully crafted messaging with a single aim — to discredit journalism as a trusted source of information.

I am looking at the extent to which Twitter is a raging current of sophisticated disinformation, playing on racial and political divisions, and a recent history of institutionalised corruption to convince the public that no-one is worth trusting.

The phenomenon is not new and has been used to influence public opinion in the US and Europe.

In SA, a combination of prominent politicians and mysterious Twitter accounts exploit historical divisions to make consensus on key policy issues almost impossible.

Mysterious accounts spread fake pictures of alleged farm murders which are in turn retweeted by real white South Africans, and picked up by right-wing US media.

Politicians on both sides of the ideological line play into this disinformation landscape.

They use inflammatory language that encourages their followers not to listen or look at evidence that may help them make informed choices in matters of politics.

Investigative journalists have become recurring victims of violent language designed to intimidate them.

These attacks insinuate an evil symbiosis between leaders of public institutions designed to make all of us accountable, such as the NPA and Sars, and journalists.

There is an attempt to create conditions under which these institutions cannot perform their functions and to discredit their leadership.

Credible journalism is essential, but in SA this is almost no longer possible.

Former editors who covered the period since 2009 should make submissions to the Zondo commission.

Leaving those insights out will create a hole in Judge Zondo’s recommendations.

• Songezo Zozibi is the former editor of Business Day

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