Each week, Daily Maverick brings you a left-of-centre report from South Africa and further afield. This week: laughter – not so much.
I was going to write something else today. Something related, but different.
The day started with veteran journalist Peter Bruce bouncing back in scathing form. He vowed to take on the Gupta family after an associate reportedly launched an all-out attack on him and his family for publishing reports that cast them in an unflattering light.
Like most of us, I was angry. But I could still see the funny side. When WMCLeaks first decided to, well, take said leak on Bruce’s reputation, for want of a better expression, I flipped through the web for fake news sites, paid Twitter accounts, comment bots. It was strangely cheering. One used to have to read auto-translated appliance instruction manuals for that sort of entertainment. And then in waltzed folks like “Dintle Schoeman” and “Dipalesa Jones”, with comment histories as long as your… thumbnail. And about as intelligent.
I spent a few moments toying with what may have happened had surveillance been placed on your average journalist rather than Peter Bruce. Me, for example. Or, worse, any of the country’s many reporters who work on long assignments remotely.
Day 1. Struggling to get a visual on subject. Subject appears to be surrounded by mugs of coffee and takeaway containers.
Day 2. Visual more challenging. Takeaway mountain growing. Subject yet to emerge. Decoy?
Day 3. Beginning to doubt subject exists. Subject may in fact have placed mannequin in seated position behind laptop.
Day 4. Suspect subject may be pumpkin covered in blanket. Or subject has fallen asleep at desk. Call The Boss to report.
Day 5. Boss says unlikely to be pumpkin. Pumpkin appears to have answered phone from editor. Tapped line indicates editor asking why pumpkin fell asleep on yesterday’s copy. Suspicions confirmed. Cat scratching pumpkin, yowling. Cat appears to want food.
Day 6: Subject has moved little. Sounds indicate possible typing. No sign of cat. Can cat be trusted?
Day 7. Boss furious with results of surveillance. Demands better angle. Call Faith for advice on handling media-related problems. Faith: whatever it is, just tell them Baba loves it or it is not reviewable.
Think may just wait till cat needs new collar.
Then I got a text: Suna Venter, dead at 32. A fellow journalist, found in her apartment in Johannesburg on Thursday morning. Venter, one of the so-called ‘SABC 8’, had been diagnosed with ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’. It seemed so unbelievable that I initially misread it. The senior radio producer’s condition was believed to have been brought on by prolonged trauma and stress. She had lost her job, as was widely reported. But after being reinstated, she suffered ongoing victimisation and intimidation, including multiple assaults; she was shot in the face with a pellet gun, requiring surgery. Ultimately she was diagnosed with stress cardiomyopathy. Her family told media they believed her condition was exacerbated, if not caused, by stress.
Shit, as they say in the classics, got real. Suddenly the victimisation of journalists wasn’t something we joke about in our offices and in bars. (We all do it, even those of us who aren’t in the trenches. Journalist Lindy West once put it: “You’re telling me you don’t have hundreds of men popping into your cubicle in the accounting department of your mid-sized, regional dry-goods distributor to inform you that – hmm – you’re too fat to rape, but perhaps they’ll saw you up with an electric knife? No? Just me?”) The stress that journalists undergo is, it turns out, not just part of the job description. It is real, and, for those on the front lines, deadly. It’s just that we think of the front lines as war zones. Not our office environments.
Nothing knocks the funny out of you like seeing a talented, principled and courageous person cut down far too young. Worldwide, journalists are exposed to disproportionately high levels of vocational stress and have very few coping mechanisms in place. Journalists can be nearly as prone to PTSD as combat veterans, and are at risk without ever leaving their desks. A recent study showed that journalists function at a lower level than the average person, largely due to high levels of stress, a poor ability to manage their emotions, and frequent complicating factors like substance abuse. Journalists count as some of the people who most need their wits about them in upholding democracy, but the stress in which they operate makes it impossible for them to do that.
That’s in general. But there’s something fundamentally more disturbing about the systematic targeting of individual journalists with the express intent of preventing them from doing their jobs. The deliberate intention to break someone. Most journalists don’t scare easily – a good way to tell a journalist in a crowd is that if there’s a gunshot, everyone else will run away and the journalist will run towards it – but Peter Bruce and Suna Venter’s stories should disturb us all.
In Peter Bruce’s case, the publishing of his family’s details was deliberate, methodical, and intended to terrify. In Venter’s case, if it is stress that killed her, her slow wearing down by trauma must have been torture. Torture in the most traditional sense of the word.
It is a dance – whichever way you spin it – that is going to end in tragedy.
So let us explain the rules, again, in case there is anybody who did not understand them the first time: It is a reporter’s job to report the truth. You cannot intimidate them out of doing their job by retaliating against the truth with lies.
Peter Bruce and Suna Venter are just two of so many. Sam Sole, Ferial Haffajee. And then the many nameless, faceless, who don’t make headlines but struggle, quietly, to do their jobs despite opposition. Suna Venter did not survive the battle. But her death has made a lot of people very sad and very angry. Not all of us are reporting on the #GuptaLeaks. Not all of us are investigative reporters. Some are not even political reporters. But every time something like this happens, more people start watching and listening, more determined than ever to fight against a culture of lies.
And, in case I didn’t make it clear, the joke’s over. DM
Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.