Maverick Citizen

Friday Activist

Angela Quintal: Defending her journalism family’s right to tell the truth

Angela Quintal: Defending her journalism family’s right to tell the truth
Angela Quintal, Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. (Photo: Rogan Ward)

Ink runs in Angela Quintal’s blood, and her pulse throbs with the fight for media freedom and protecting journalists so they can just get on with telling the story.

Full circle moments are what Angela Quintal is thinking about as another year draws to a close. A year in which 42 journalists globally were killed doing their jobs.

The Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is in a pensive mood speaking during a home visit to Durban. She’s visiting her partner of 24 years “who everyone knows as Mtura” and her sisters (because they cook better than she does). It’s a working holiday that she’s hoping will allow for squeezing in more books to read.

It’s been a year of Covid-19 disruption and blows to the media have been brutal. Journalists in the field have reported with the threat of contracting the virus; there have been job bloodbaths, salary cuts and ultimately a toll in lives lost – those 42 people, according to the International Federation of Journalists.

But the distraction of Covid-19 has also set worrying precedents of governments being able to throttle the flow of information; restrict movement; present flimsy data to prop up policy, justify police bullying, and military heavy-handedness. It weakens media freedom and makes democracy shakier.

“It has been an intense year because of Covid, but some things have been problems for a long time already,” says Quintal, who was a career journalist and editor at The Mercury and Mail & Guardian before taking up the CPJ role based in New York in 2016.

The CPJ role is one of those full-circle moments in her life. It merges her two loves: journalism and human rights. It’s also a role of purpose, going against the grain sometimes and still having a finely-tuned BS radar.

After all, it’s what Quintal has been doing since she said no to cadet parades at high school, opting to edit the school newspaper instead. Later it was the kind of intent that led her to set up the Rhodes University branch of Lawyers for Human Rights. She was a student volunteer for their street law project.

“I thought I was going to become a human rights lawyer,” says Quintal about career choice as an antidote to the experiences of growing up in Broederbond-controlled Worcester and being the target of exclusion and bigotry as the daughter of Portuguese immigrants. She ended up pursuing a BJourn LLB and afterwards continued with an LLM focused on constitutional law.

But when her thesis didn’t materialise she had a breakthrough moment. “It was a state of emergency and if you were reading the newspapers you could not have been anything but aware of what was going on. I thought ‘what am I doing here in my ivory tower, pursuing my LLM when I should be out there?’ ” she says.

So she relocated to Joburg, took advice to work for Johnny Johnson (“last of the short-sleeved editors”) at The Citizen and launched her journalism career.

“I was told to ignore Johnson’s politics and get the grounding that mattered,” she says.

But this was The Citizen, marked by the Info Scandal and its role as a National Party propaganda tool. Her time at the paper was testy even though she nailed the basics of hard news reporting. It made the lessons at the paper about pushing for better reporting when Johnson said they didn’t cover “riot stories” or that female journalists weren’t allowed into the field. She eventually left and did a 10-year stint at Sapa (the South African Press Association).  

Sapa was the glory days of reporting for her. The gig at The Citizen would eventually also hold the lessons of not for falling for convenient binaries and pigeonholing. “Nothing is black and white, not even Johnson,” she says.

At The Mercury and Mail & Guardian there would be good days, bad days and also the ones straight out of hell. Quintal is candid about her editorship quickly turning into being a marketing machine, working mostly unsuccessfully to dismantle entrenched boys’ clubs, dodging newsroom impimpis and fighting off interference by management and the owner.

Her dad was right – journalism has turned out to be dangerous. What he got wrong, though, was believing that his daughter could ever be able to walk away.

Walking away at the right moment turned out to be a skill; checking in honestly with herself – artistry. It’s what she still strives for. “I have never been about believing what I’m told without checking it out for myself – and reading and listening,” she says.

It’s also what has shaped her politics. As a young woman she was interested in Robert Sobukwe, and as the years went on, also the erasure of his party, the Pan Africanist Congress, from the liberation narrative. It means she continues to ask the hard questions about control over South Africa’s liberation story.

Room to question, freedom to read what you like and even the right to disagree aren’t things Quintal takes for granted. She knows it landed journalists in prison, led them to become “the disappeared”, or even to their deaths. 

It was in Tanzania two years ago when she and Kenyan colleague Muthoki Mumo’s questions about journalist Azory Gwanda’s disappearance in 2017 led to the pair being detained by Tanzanian authorities.

Gwanda was a freelance journalist who had at the time of his disappearance had been working on stories about the murder of local government officers by unidentified assailants. The Tanzanian government has still not given credible or detailed reports on investigations into what happened to Gwanda.

“When they entered our hotel room I managed to get an SOS out to the CPJ head office, also to my partner,” she says, before government strongmen shut down their communications, harassed and assaulted them for several harrowing hours.

The experience allowed Quintal to understand layers of privilege – from her skin colour, to having the backing of an organisation and network, to the passport she holds, or living now mostly in New York. She also understood the fear and vulnerability of those who are not “celebrity journalists” or who don’t work for a publication with prominence or clout.

“That is why we work to make the names of these journalists known, to make sure that they know we are not going to stop fighting for them. We will not allow them to be forgotten or to rot in jail,” she says.

Her father’s last words to her also come to mind. It was the night of Chris Hani’s funeral in the winter of 1993. As a reporter, she had covered the proceedings. The Dawn Park cemetery in Joburg’s East Rand was tense and volatile. It mirrored the burning and bloodletting of the year.

When the phone rang it was her dad. His impassioned plea was for Quintal to quit journalism – it was too dangerous, he told his beloved youngest daughter.

She hung up, pulled the phone cord from the wall. The next morning came the shattering news that her father had died suddenly in the night.

Her dad was right – journalism has turned out to be dangerous. What he got wrong, though, was believing that his daughter could ever be able to walk away.

Ink runs in her blood. More importantly, Quintal’s heart is for her journalism family, which makes her fight the one to defend their protection, rights and freedom so the Fourth Estate can be a supporting beam of democracy. DM/MC


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