It’s difficult to measure a trend. But on the night of 18 July a photographer from Independent Media’s Isolezwe newspaper, Bongani Mbatha, was gunned down in cold blood in KwaZulu-Natal. a suspicion that his murder may be related to his work. We are told there is an investigation to establish who his killers were. Investigations into murders and prosecutions take time, especially if the victims are whistle-blowers, journalists or photographers. We don’t have a history of journalists being murdered or jailed in the democracy age in South Africa, unlike in many parts of the world. However, this may become a trend to watch out for.
In May this year, Ralikonelo Joki, an investigative radio journalist in Lesotho, was shot 13 times, and killed, after leaving work one night. He was a well-known journalist at the privately owned Ts’enolo FM. His killers are still at large.
Internationally, murders of journalists were up 50% in 2022 compared with the year before, according to Unesco. This translates to 86, or one killing every four days.
So often, journalist bodies and NGOs in the media space ask the police and investigating officers: was this a criminal act, or was it done because the journalist or photographer was uncovering something that somebody didn’t want known?
Clearly, it is often both but can’t be proven because there are cover-ups.
Take one case that is nearly 10 years old. Michael Tshele, a community newspaper photographer, was shot dead in January 2014 while taking pictures in Mothutlung near Brits, North West, during one of many protests over a lack of water.
Community activists in Brits said Tshele was well known for documenting service delivery protests. They also said the police knew him for taking photographs. Most pertinently, activists say they saw a well-recognised “Marikana policeman” shoot him.
The official statement is that Tshele was shot dead “in the crossfire” of protests, but witnesses said he was shot deliberately, in cold blood. The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) at the time asked the police commissioner to investigate.
Tshele’s killing raises several points. It wasn’t covered in the mainstream media much and it would seem that local media, or those outside the urban centres, do not make big headlines nationally. Getting caught in the crossfire of a community protest sounds like cover-up talk, when he could really have been a target. In 2016 a former police officer was found guilty of his murder in the High Court of Pretoria and sentenced to 15 years in prison
Tshele was taking pictures of broken water pipes when he was shot dead. What Mbatha was working on is still to emerge.
Some would say three dead journalists is not a trend. But it could become one, as it is in many countries in the world where journalists and photographers are killed, often assassination-style, or they “disappear”.
In many repressive one-party countries in the world, for example China and Russia, journalists and photographers “disappear”. What does this “disappearance” count as?
India, the largest democracy in the world, persecutes Muslims under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime. Journalists who stand up to this, such as Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub; read her tweets to get an idea) are persecuted daily and she fears for her life – in a democracy.
Unesco, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other international bodies do painstaking work to keep tabs on and document all the incidents of bullying, intimidation and killing around the world.
In South Africa, we are lucky to have many civil society organisations in the media space: Media Monitoring Africa, Gender Links, Sanef, the Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, the Campaign for Free Expression, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, the Press Council of South Africa, Right2Know and the Freedom of Expression Institute, to name just some. Our neighbouring countries don’t have this many.
Meanwhile, last week, the editor of the Botswanan national newspaper Mmegi, Ryder Gabathuse, was detained along with a reporter in his country, known as one of the most democratic nations in Africa. Like us, Botswana is holding elections next year.
If indeed South Africa is about to follow this trend from around the world and our robust media freedom is on the line, civil society broadly, and NGOs in the media space as well as all democrats, should be getting worried and ready to fight this monstrosity. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29. The story was updated on 8 August to add the conviction of a former police officer for Michael Tshele’s murder in the Pretoria High Court in 2016.