In headlines now / 21.07.2017

South Africa: Journalists increasingly face violent persecution for resisting corruption

Suna Venter, one of the SABC8, died on June 29 2017. Photo:
By David Niddrie Johannesburg, 20 JUL. 2017: -- Suna Venter, a 32-year-old radio producer at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was literally hounded to death for opposing the man President Jacob Zuma placed at the public broadcaster to ensure its loyalty. In mid-2016 Venter and other senior radio and TV production and on-air staff defied an attempt by Zuma’s placeman, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, to censor coverage of the rising number of “service delivery” protests – over a lack of water, electricity and housing. Motsoeneng fired all eight. They were back at work within weeks after successfully challenging their dismissals in the labour court. All eight received threatening texts messages and were targeted by intimidatory abuse. Venter, however, was the most vulnerable – she lived alone, and not far from the SABC. The brake cables on her car were cut and the tires were slashed several times. The intimidation escalated: her flat was repeatedly burglarised and trashed and, early this year, she was shot in the face with a pellet gun. Two months later, she was, kidnapped, tired to a tree in an inner-city nature reserve and had the waist-high grass around her set alight. She escaped unharmed, but had by them developed a heart condition, stress cardiomyopathy, brought on by trauma and prolonged periods of intense stress. The syndrome causes rapid and severe weakening of the heart muscle. Doctors advised her to quit the SABC, but she was adamant: not until the battle at the SABC was won. She died on 29 June this year, living just long enough to see the censorship edict by Motsoeneng overturned by the broadcast regulator and Motsoeneng fired by a new board of directors. But Motsoeneng’s legacy lives on: the SABC is crippled, technically bankrupt and many executive positions are still occupied by his hand-picked allies. And there are clear indications that the brutal campaign against Venter was the opening skirmish in a new and openly violent campaign to silence journalists and others critical of Zuma’s openly corrupt administration. Antecedents to intimidation For journalists, South Africa’s savage apartheid history, and extremely violent democratic era, has been unexpectedly kind. The country consistently scores among the world’s top murders-per-capita figures – encouraged by the world’s highest Gini coefficient (the actuarially calculated gap between rich and poor). But the shooting of global award winning photographer Ken Oosterbroek in a skirmish between transitional government troops and gunmen of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) just a week before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, was the exception rather than the rule. Even during the bloody 1980s civil war in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, in which marauding gangs of IFP supporters, secretly armed by the last apartheid government, killed hundreds in their scorched earth attempt to crush the anti-apartheid movement there, IFP thugs and warlords tended to wave their guns at journalists, rather than kill them. The political violence in KZN never really ended. It merely slowed after 1994, when many IFP supporters responded to Zuma’s tribalist encouragement to join the ruling party after the African National Congress’s 1994 election triumph. Former IFP gang leaders quickly found a simple solution to the uncertain complexities of democratic procedure, hiring former followers to kill their rivals. It worked well, so remains fairly common – at least 89 municipal councillors, officials and supporters have been killed in KZN in the last three years, and at least as many unsuccessfully targeted for assassination. Journalists targeted by fake news Venter’s hounding suggests that the Gupta brothers – three recent immigrants who have partnered with Zuma to loots billions of dollars from the South African public purse – have learned from the IFP experience. Faced with media exposure, the brothers initially attempted to compete with their critics. But neither the daily paper, awash with government advertising, nor the grotesquely partisan TV news channel attracted significant audiences or won over an increasingly antagonistic public. British PR firm Bell Pottinger (hired at £100 000 a month) was similarly unsuccessful, despite embarking on an extensive social media and fake-news web campaign to sully the reputations of targeted journalists. The Guptas have therefore embarked on a campaign run by thugs for hire – of which the anonymous Motsoeneng supporters were the first – to scare their critics into silence. Early this month a group calling itself Black First Land First (BFLF), funded by the Guptas, laid siege to the home of newspaper columnist Peter Bruce, and physically assaulted freelance broadcaster Karima Brown – one of a handful of journalists who arrived to block their entry. BFLF has since released a list of a dozen journalists they have vowed to silence. The targets are not all journalists: the deputy general secretary of the increasingly critical communist party has also been targeted and his home besieged (unsurprisingly, his journalist wife is also on BFLF’s list of journalists). With the recent explosive publication of South Africa’s version of WikiLeaks, Guptaleaks, daily revealing more cases of state looting by the Gupta-Zuma nexus, the ruling ANC is reluctantly moving towards removing Zuma and acting against the Guptas, and the listed journalists are increasingly vocal. Escalation of the campaign to silence public criticism seems inevitable. *** David Niddrie is a journalist and media consultant. He lives in Johannesburg

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