Eddie Koch: A life and work that reminds us of what journalism can be

Mail & Guardian Journalist Eddie Koch was doing a story on the Mozambican border in 1990 when he had a tip off that there were businessmen bringing people across the border and “selling” them – women into sexual slavery, and men into forced labour.
He had gone there to investigate the electric border fence which had cost at least 200 lives. The previous week he had filed a story on a helicopter that was regularly taking off from the area laden with weapons for the rebel Renamo movement.

Now he set off with junior reporter Phillip Molefe to track down these human traffickers. Molefe – who went on to become SABC head of news – spent a week drinking in a local shebeen to make contact with these human traders. He bought two of their “stock” for R200 each and was told they he should feed them and could beat them if they did not work hard.

Eddie and a contact

On 16 November 1990, the story was splashed on the M&G front page: “I bought two slaves on Wednesday: Jorge Mthembu (17) and Immanuel Khambule (18). They were sold to me on the sole condition that I paid hard cash for them. They are now at my mercy: if they refuse to work, demand pay or threaten to run away, I can call the police and have them arrested as illegals.”

This was Eddie’s intrepid, enterprising style of journalism. Soft-spoken Eddie always worked collaboratively, and he and Molefe had many such adventures in a style of undercover journalism we seldom see today.

The second half of the story tells us even more about Eddie. None of us had thought about what one does with “slaves”. If we let them go, they would be arrested or vulnerable to further exploitation. They certainly did not want to go home. They were clear that we owned them and were responsible for their welfare.

They lived in Eddie’s house with his family for a while, and then moved into the M&G offices. Eddie worked for months to find someone who would employ them, pay them and treat them decently. I only recently learnt that one of them worked for his mother-in-law for many years.

That was Eddie: he took full responsibility for the people he wrote about, and would not think of moving on until he had looked after them. There were no short-term, quick hit, parachute stories: he liked his front page headlines, but it was the people he wrote about that mattered.

When I asked people he had worked with over the years about him, three “c’s” came up repeatedly: curiosity, courage and caring. He was a decent guy, they all said, a “mensch”, level-headed and always calm.

He produced a remarkable body of work: at different times he was an historian, a political and labour writer, a music writer, an investigative journalist, a human rights activist, a pioneering environmental journalist and then an eco-tourism development worker. He also co-produced a number of books, including Going Green: People, Politics and the Environment, with academic Jacklyn Cock, and Rights, Resources and Rural Development, with Christo Fabricius and others.

At a time when the profession is floundering, his life and work are reminders of what journalism can be.

Born in Joburg in 1955, he went to Maryvale Primary and Sandringham High schools, where he was captain of rugby. At Wits, he studied history, and wrote a memorable MA. It was at Wits that his passion for journalistic adventure was probably seeded. He was distribution manager of the student newspaper, Wits student, when he stumbled across suspected student spy Derrick Brune meeting with rightwingers in the restaurant where he was working on weekends. An elaborate and dramatic plan to entrap Brune was set in place, complete with rented kombis and hidden cameras. But someone had tipped Brune off, and it failed. (Brune was later exposed as a police lieutenant.)

At a gathering of Nusas, the anti-apartheid student organisation, he met his future wife, Tina Sideris.

After university, he worked at alternative publications Learn & Teach and the Labour Bulletin and later the national press agency, Sapa. He joined the Weekly Mail (now M&G) not long after it started and became a core member of its small team of journalists.

Eddie was seldom in the office, always off with a group of colleagues and collaborators on a journalistic escapade.

Journalist Charles Leonard, then with Vrye Weekblad, tells of a trip a group of them did to the Eastern Cape in search of land stories. “It was kind of gonzo with a cause,” he said. Eddie insisted on borrowing a small rowboat and going out to sea to swim with the dolphins. When one oar broke, they were stranded and had to be rescued. It was a Saturday afternoon, and when they were towed back to harbour, the entire community, drinks in hand, came out to laugh at them.

But Crocodile Koch, as I came to call him, kept up a flow of diverse and important stories as weekly deadline approached.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when rogue elements of the state were promoting violence, Eddie worked on a number of important exposés, including the Caprivi 200, Inkatha members who were secretly trained by military intelligence to promote the bloody KwaZulu-Natal conflict at the time, Inkathagate, which showed how security police were secretly funding Inkatha, and the revelations of Bongani Khumalo, an Inkatha youth leader who spilt the beans on the relationship between the state and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. There was also the Black Cats, a Wesselton gang which was sponsored by the security police to disrupt resistance activities. “Here is the Third Force,” the headline shouted above pictures of gang members who told who was paying them to do this work. These stories were crucial in exposing those who were trying to derail negotiations, and they demanded a good deal of courage.

Eddie had a knack for getting people to talk to him. He interviewed apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock and – as always – Eddie won his respect. When Eddie was going off to Macedonia to cover the troubles there, De Kock came to the airport to give him a flackjacket to keep him safe.

When democracy came, and we all had to rethink our journalism, Eddie became a pioneering environmental journalist, starting a special supplement in the paper, which evolved into the Greening the Future programme and awards.

“He was one of the first environmental journalists to go into deep investigative reporting. He was one of the few who saw you could not separate the social, economic and ecological,” said his eco-tourism business partner David Grossman.

But he had a temper when it came to matters of principle. When a photographer used a picture of Environmental Minister Valli Moosa skinny-dipping during a trip they took together, Eddie was so furious at the breach of trust that he kicked his colleague’s equipment.

In the late 1990s, while writing about land claims, Eddie became involved in setting up eco-tourism ventures for communities who were getting back their land. He set up a company called Mafisa and later the African Safari Lodges Foundation to do this work, largely through public-private ventures. Their greatest success was in the Makuleke community in the far north of the Kruger Park, where the ecotourism ventures are still successful. “He helped set the matrix for developments of that kind,” said Cliff Bestall, a filmmaker who worked with him.

Bestall did the Healing Through Nature Series with Eddie for SABC, as well as a number of other films.

In 2006, Eddie had a cardiac arrest while driving. He suffered brain damage and loss of memory and struggled with that for the rest of his life. With Bestall, he made one last film, The Unforgetting, in which they went back to the St Lucia community where they had made a previous film and tried to reconstruct his memory. “We were using his own theory of healing through nature. Standing on the beach during the filming, Eddie one day said the most poignant thing: ‘By the time I finish watching this 26-minute film, I will have forgotten the beginning’.”

Last week, on his way to the art classes which had become his passion, he had a stroke.

*A memorial service is to be held on Friday, March 16, 11am, Maryvale Catholic Church, Raedene /Orange Grove

We won’t weep to see ANN7 replaced by a real news operation

The closure of any media outlet is normally mourned by all journalists, because of the loss of jobs, diversity and competition. But the announcement this week that pay-TV operator Multichoice will not renew the contract of news channel ANN7 will be no great loss to the news media or the public debate. It will, though, be a setback to the corrupt three-way state capture conspiracy which brought together ANN7, Multichoice and elements of the government, as exposed by the now notorious Guptaleaks emails.

The emails which were leaked some months ago from inside the Gupta clan – which has been at the centre of state capture accusations in South Africa because of their extraordinary inflluence over President Jacob Zuma, his family and members of his Cabinet – included evidence that Multichoice had made multimillion payments to both ANN7 and SABC to get their support for Multichoice’s attempt to influence government policy on digitalisation.

Yesterday Multichoice, which is facing an inquiry by broadcast regulator Icasa, announced the results of its own internal probe. They had made mistakes they said, but there was nothing corrupt or illegal. Nevertheless, they would not be renewing ANN7’s contract when it expired in August, and instead would open up bidding for another black-owned news station.

The night before this announcement, ANN7 ran a piece on the Vrede dairy farm, in central South Africa, which is part of the police investigation into Gupta-inspired fraud, and promised to give us the real story that the rest of the corruption-obsessed media were not telling.

Station owner Mzwaneli Manyi, a former government communicator who was gifted the station by the Guptas, went himself to the farm to show that it was not derelict, but a “world class facility”, a fact being downplayed by the rest of the media. It was a long, repetative piece in the ANN7 tradition of trying to deflect criticism of friends and sponsors accused of corruption and state capture.

They made no attempt to tell us why the farm’s current state is relevant to fraud which happened at least five years ago under different ownership, nor whether it was worth the R220-m of taxpayers’ money that went into it, nor why most of that money appeared to have been pealed off to pay for weddings and other non-farming activities. They did not tell us if the farm was profitable or whether 10 000 litres of milk every two days was a good production level. They did speak to some of the 45 employees who said they and their families depended on the farm, though the townspeople they spoke to all said that the politician’s promises that this farm would benefit the community had come to little.

It was the worst kind of sham, poisonous journalism for which ANN7 has become known. It was based on a false premise (that the media were suggesting that the farm was still derelict) and intended to throw up dust around those accused of involvement in what was by all accounts a fraudulent business venture. It was unmistakenly part of the fight-back campaign being launched by President Jacob Zuma’s supporters, a number of whom are among those accused of fraud in relation to this farm.

One veterinarian took one look at the pictures of cows and tweeted, “Call the SPCA”, saying these bony bovines did not look healthy enough to produce significant amounts of milk.

But Manyi did not get an expert to look at the pictures. What the station did was then produce their dubious group of analysts and commentators who are also funded by the Guptas – none of them dairy farmers, some of them serial fraudsters or under restraining order from intimidating journalists – to say that clearly the other media was hiding the real story as part of the grand white monopoly capital conspiracy.

You would think that this kind of dishonest political propaganda would be the reason Multichoice were not renewing ANN7s contract. But they gave no details of what their mistakes were, nor any explanation of why it was not corrupt, so it was impossible to know how the decision was made. One could only conclude that Multichoice and its parent company, Naspers, was doing what it has done best for over 100 years: move with the political wind to stay onside with whoever is in or going to be in Pretoria’s Union Buildings. With Zuma about to be replaced by new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, the Gupta connnection becomes a liability rather than an asset.

This is why the demise of ANN7 is more of a concern to the Gupta network of corruption than journalists or the viewing public. Surely in the post-truth age we have to act against those who knowingly purvey falsity? You could call this the Facebook lesson: diversity in news is of dubious value when it means polluting the air with dishonest journalism. What we want is more, better, independent journalism – and we will have a better chance of getting that if ANN7 is replaced by another station.

There is a precedent in this country for a media outlet that was born in sin and shunned for decades by anyone who cared about news and journalism: the Citizen newspaper. It was started in the 1970s with secret government funds, with the express intention of undermining the Rand Daily Mail, at the time the most liberal and anti-apartheid of our newspapers.

The Citizen went through multiple changes of ownership until this history was bleeched out. But only diehard apartheid supporters would have mourned its closure in the 1980s, just as only diehard Gupta-supporters will mourn the disappearance of ANN7.

What this incident highlights more than anything is the danger of the Multichoice monopoly on pay-TV, which gives it extroardinary power to decide what alternatives we have to the public broadcaster, the SABC. Rather than the future of ANN7, we should perhaps worry about Multichoice having so much power, and using it so cynically.

*This column first appeared on Daily Maverick

Everyone hurts when you break the rules of journalism

If there was ever an illustration of how harmful it is for media to carry sponsored editorial without letting the audience know, the Sunday Times gave it to us last weekend.

Page four of the country’s biggest newspaper offered a hopeful perspective on the Cape Town water: “Cape Town’s dreaded Day Zero can be avoided”. As someone with a daughter going off to study in the Cape, I felt relieved that what is generally a credible newspaper believed that the worst might not happen. As someone trained to read media carefully, I noticed that the page was labelled “Special Feature” and it used a different typeface from the rest of the paper’s editorial.

But it did not say it was sponsored. And it contained political criticism of the Democratic Alliance: “Water Minister tells DA finger-pointers to dry up”. Surely the Sunday Times would not allow one politician to pay for space to criticise her rivals without telling us that this is what it was?

In fact, it was paid for by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). “It was indeed sponsored content and the initial draft had the department’s logo and an indication to readers that this was not an editorial page,” Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko said, in answer to my questions.

“The page was changed by sales staff during production process without alerting the editor/editorial and the final product appeared not so clear even though the fonts, page flatting and other elements distinguished it from news pages.

“I was not satisfied with the final product and I have made it clear to sales staff that changes on such pages need to be discussed with the editor for final approval. We have made it clear in all our native advertising features that there must always be a declaration to the readers regarding the status of the pages,” Siqoko.

DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau was surprised to learn that their logo was not on it, and said it was standard for it to be on all their advertising material. Asked if it was normal to include a political statement by the Minister in an advert paid for by taxpayers, he said, “This could be because there is always a need to impress on consumers that the Minister has always had this idea that water has no boundaries and water knows no politics. It is something she feels strongly about.”

The reader has been dangerously misled. Reading it, one assumes this is the work of an informed, skilled, critical journalist who has weighed up the evidence to conclude that Day Zero can be avoided – and that the evidence and conclusion have been through rigorous editorial. It turns out that this is a politically-laden, one-sided, unfiltered opinion.

What adds to the confusion is that on the facing page, regular Sunday Times reporting tells a different – less hopeful – story. At best the reader is left confused. More likely, they feel deceived and misled, certainly once they realise that the first page they read was disguised propaganda.

Sunday Times’ authority and credibility have been damaged, and the Minister and her department look like they are trying to play political games rather than deal frankly with a crisis situation. Everyone is hurt.

It does not help that most of the media coverage has been confusing and unhelpful, offering conflicting views on whether Day Zero can be avoided and what will happen when it comes. There has been little attempt by all the parties to put aside political squabbles and focus on what this means for citizens. Now the Sunday Times and the Minister/Department have added to the uncertainty.

This comes shortly after a controversy over the SABC failing to tell us the Minister of Social Development and Women’s League chair Bathabile Dlamini, had paid for a lengthy personal television interview that ran during the ANC conference.

My comment that this was “in contravention of every principle of journalism, every code of conduct, every professional rule” brought an angry open letter from Ministerial spokesperson, Lumka Oliphant. Oliphant’s letter was revealing in that it argued that this kind of conduct was routine. She was graphic in her description of a desperate media bidding for her budget:

“Every year around this time, I get phone calls and meeting requests from members of the media … their advertising departments and sometimes editors. They want to be considered in my spending plan and they all compete for the budget. They bring colourful proposals and negotiate for better pricing. It is very competitive …”

She often pays for editorial, she argued, though she fails to distinguish when it is done openly or secretly, or when it is done for genuine coverage or for Ministerial self-promotion: “I have taken a team from Carte Blanche to Brazil to repatriate children in distress and paid for them. I have taken a team from the SABC to Las Vegas when this department won an award … I have paid for (SABC’s) Morning Live and for (eNCA’s) Sunrise. I have paid Primedia …”

She is right that under financial pressure, the media have encouraged inappropriate practices, and are sacrificing their own credibility as a result. At least, both the Sunday Times and the SABC have quickly recanted and said they will stick to their policies.

What Lumka failed to mention was that her conduct – and that of many of her government colleagues – was in contravention of their own rules. The “bible” of government communicators, the GCIS Handbook, is unequivocal: “Government Departments should not pay the media for any form of editorial coverage. We should achieve reputation-enhancing, earned media coverage through the newsworthiness of activities and announcements.” (Paragraph 10.5.3)

It would also be in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act for taxpayer’s money to be used for Ministerial self-promotion or party-political squabbles.

The rule of proper conduct are all in place. All we need now is someone in charge with the will to implement them.

* This column first appeared on Daily Maverick

An open response to an open letter from Lumka Oliphant

Lumka Oliphant, spokesperson for the Minister of Social Development, has issued an open letter to me in response to my criticism of her department’s payment for an SABC interview. This is my response.


I am pleased to engage with you on this topic. Since I understand your note was blind-copied to a number of others, I hope you will forward my reply to them as well.

It is good to hear that the Wits Journalism lecturers have been encouraging you to be creative, but if they did not also emphasise the importance of knowing and upholding public and media relations ethics, then that is a serious oversight.

I note that the “bible” of government communicators, the GCIS Handbook, is very clear on the issue of payment for coverage: “Government Departments should not pay the media for any form of editorial coverage. We should achieve reputation-enhancing, earned media coverage through the newsworthiness of activities and announcements.” (Paragraph 10.5.3)

Your are right that things are tough in government communications and in the media and media sales people are often pushing the boundaries. But we are going to damage the media and journalism if we don’t tackle this, and that will not be good for any communicator.

I said in my piece that this has meant that unethical and inappropriate practices have crept into our media and this is damaging credibility. These financial pressures are unfortunate, but we have to accept them as part of our new reality. But, I argued, we still have to keep some rules to protect our credibility.

The most important rule, I believe, is that sponsorship and payment must be transparent.

Another is that public money must be used to promote knowledge and awareness of the department’s work and how the public can access social services. in this case, it was used to promote the Minister personally, and politically.

I don’t see a problem in you helping media cover things they cannot otherwise get to, if it is done openly. I think your support for community media is excellent – but it has to be done in a way that builds the credibility of that media, and does not undermine it. I agree with you on the importance of the public broadcaster. I think that there are many sponsorships and co-productions you could do with the SABC which would serve you, them and the public well. But this does not include using public money to promote the minister personally, or in ways that intervene in party leadership battles at critical times.

Much of the problem lies with the broadcaster, and I see they admitted it in their statement on Friday, and have taken steps to correct it. I think it is incumbent on all of us to respect the rules of best practice. Our country depends on a strong media with credible programmes and hosts, and we must work together to reinforce – and not undermine – this.

With regards


South Africa’s latest innovation: the official, above-the-table ‘brown envelope’

UPDATE: The SABC has issued an excellent statement admitting that they were in breach of their own policies in asking for payment for interviews and taking steps to prevent it happening again. They went so far as to say they would not be invoicing for the controversial interview. Well done, SABC: a quick, clear and firm response that starts the process of cleaning up.

South African journalism has had some low points in its 200-year history. This week’s admission that the SABC sells interviews without telling the audience is one of the lowest.

Minister Bathabile Dlamini admitted paying the SABC for an interview last year in the middle of crucial ANC leadership battles, and describing this as routine practice and “an investment in the public broadcaster” for which she would not apologise.

What she has done is destroy the public broadcaster’s journalistic credibility, undermined its integrity, and compromised its professionalism. She has certainly destroyed the credibility of SABC’s Real Talk show and its presenter Anele Mdoda. Even if Mdoda was not instructed to go soft on Dlamini, who was after all a client rather than an interviewee, her credibility is blown.

A wink and a nudge from Bathabile

To run a paid-for interview with a politician is dubious at all times, but especially in the middle of a major leadership battle. To do so without telling the audience is in contravention of every principle of journalism, every code of conduct, every professional rule – including the SABC’s own editorial charter, the industry code and the Broadcasting Act, which commits the SABC to the highest editorial and journalistic standards. To spend public money to do this must also raise questions under the Public Finance Management Act.

What she has done is encourage an official form of the “brown envelope journalism” that has been the scourge of African journalism. This practice of paying for news coverage – often in the form of a “travel allowance” – has destroyed the credibility and standing of journalists in a number of countries. There are places in Africa where journalists will not cover a press conference unless they get a brown envelope on arrival. It is done by businesses and politicians, but I have never heard of it before as official, above-the-table government policy. This is now a South African innovation.

The irony is that the ANC has frequently accused the commercial media of compromising their journalism in the rush for revenue. Turns out they have themselves been systematically paying to undermine the journalistic integrity of the public broadcaster. Perhaps this is why they have ignored their own conference resolutions for government to fund the SABC and lessen its reliance on commercial advertising: they find it more cost-effective to get what they want by paying for specific coverage.

In South Africa, there are media sectors – such as in fashion and travel – in which the line between paid and editorial space has become unfortunately blurred. But in news and current affairs coverage, there have been only a few cases of the brown envelope, and the individuals responsible have been driven out of the profession.

It is sadly true that the clear and firm distinction that used to exist between paid advertising and editorial has become flexible in all our media. Travel is often paid for, advertising space is bought in exchange for favourable coverage and the power of advertisers to influence editorial has grown. The pressure for revenue under tight economic conditions has undermined best practice.

But there are still rules: gifts have to be declared, as does travel sponsorship. Paid space and time must be clearly marked for what it is. Transparency is essential. And one has to be particularly careful with prominent politicians at sensitive times. Without such rules, journalism loses its standing and credibility – it becomes just cheap advertising.

Under financial pressure and without firm editorial leadership, the public broadcaster has clearly compromised itself. To rebuild its credibility and re-establish its integrity, it needs to clarify and enforce its rules and guidelines. The regulator, Icasa, needs to hold an inquiry into brown envelope practices and ways to enforce the law and the industry code. And Parliament needs to rein in ministers and departments that undermine the SABC and its integrity.

*First appeared: Daily Maverick 19 November 2017

It stinks like a week-old carcass

Friday’s GuptaLeaks story was important for revealing what looked like a corrupt nexus between the Gupta’s ANN7 television channel, its pay-TV carrier Multichoice and former Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi. But it was remarkable for another reason too: the story came from and was carried by News24, part of the Naspers family and a sister company to Multichoice.

The story appeared simultanously on News24, the independent investigative unit Amabhungane and the Daily Maverick, a product of their agreement to work together on the trove of emails known as GuptaLeaks. It had no byline, but it originated from News24 and was the result of deep digging into the metadata behind some of the emails.

It was deeply embarassing for Multichoice. Already on the defensive for evidence that it had been subsidising the highly-partisan ANN7, this latest story exposed the relationship between Multichoice, the Zuma government, the SABC and the Guptas. It offered the first coherent explanation of why Muthambi and the SABC had broken with ANC policy and backed Multichoice in the battle over digital encryption, a move a few years ago which shocked observors. In the middle of this, as seems to be the case in all such shady government deals, were the Guptas of Saxonwold.

In this deal, Multichoice got support for what they needed on encryption policy to defend their monopoly, the SABC’s then-CEO, the notorious Hlaudi Motswaneng, enjoyed a R30-m bonus, and the Guptas received a R25-m down-payment and an increase in their revenue from Multichoice. It is not clear what Minister Muthambi gained, but you can be certain that she got something for going along with a policy that was clearly against the interests of the public and the ANC.

To say there was a whiff of impropriety about this foursome would be inaccurate. It stank like a week-old carcass.

To publish such a story about a sister company required rare courage, professionalism and principal from News24 editor Adriaan Basson and his team. They had informed their boss, Media24 CEO Esmaré Weidemann, that this bombshell was coming and no attempt was made to dissuade them from doing so.

This act of independent journalism is significant when you realise that Multichoice is the large local cash-cow in the Naspers group, indirectly subsidising the struggling print and internet assets in Media24. Improper behaviour can endanger Multichoice’s pay-TV licence, which would have dire consequences for their whole South African operation.

This story puts their journalism up against their corporate interest – and provides the toughest test yet of whether Media24 will stand by the editorial independence they embraced during the transition to democracy.

Naspers moved in the transitional period from being a voice of Afrikaner Nationalism, deeply enmeshed with the National Party, to one that embraced the new era like no other. Under apartheid, they had Cabinet Ministers on their board, their political editor attended closed party meetings and they made large donations to the ruling party. Some of their editors pushed for reform, but it was cautious reform from with the ruling party, and they avoided covering the worst atrocities of apartheid.

With the transition, they threw off this yoke, changing more than any other company. They became the country’s biggest publisher in both English and Afrikaans, shifted internal culture from a stiff-collared conservatism to bold entreprenuerialism, led the way into digitalisation and new media technologies and expanded globally with extraordinary success. At the same time, their share price moved over 25 years from R12 to now around R3 000.

Chastened by their journalistic failures under apartheid, they gave their editors more freedom than most to enjoy the new democratic order. This includes cultivating some strong investigative reporters, such as those responsible for the latest exposés, though they might not have expected these reporters to shine their light into the dark corners of their own company.

To understand Naspers, you have to understand that deep in their company’s DNA is the capacity to work with – and thrive under – whoever is in power wherever they operated, a fundamental pragmatism that made possible their extraordinary growth.

They were able – against all the odds – to keep their pay-TV monopoly in the new South Africa until 15 years into the new order, when they were powerful enough to block any newcomers. They continued to stay away from producing local television news, for fear that this would cause them political headaches, until they outsourced this problem by commissioning eTV to provide them with the eNCA channel. They later introduced ANN7 and SABC News as a counter to the more independent eNCA.

In South Africa, China and other African countries where they have a pay-TV presence, they have shown an extreme flexibility in getting on with governments and ruling parties, including those of the more dictatorial or corrupt bent. In China, their company Tencent (of which they own 35%) is obliged by Chinese law to run their own team of censors scouring their content for any material that breaches Beijing’s daily list of prohibited topics.

Naspers deflects responsibility for this, passing any questions on to their local partners in Tencent.
But they cannot deflect questions about Multichoice and the questions are not going to go away.

Already under scrutiny is the questionable deal they did with the SABC, where they got control of the SABC archive and support for their encryption policy for a bargain-basement payment of R500-m, of which a chunk seems to have paid the CEO’s extraordinary bonus. Now opposition parties have demanded details of their dubious agreement with ANN7, threatening to take them to the broadcasting regulator and the competitions commission.

Even the new Minister of Communications, Mamaloko Kubayi-Ngubane, has said there must be an investigation into allegations of a corrupt relationship.

These developments are going to test Naspers’ ability to stay onside with government, allow their journalists to continue to do their work and not fuel growing calls for subscribers to cancel their contracts.

In a climate where major multinationals, such as KPMG and McKinsey, have been called to account for their Gupta relationships, at great cost to them, we will see just how pragmatic Naspers can be.
*First appeared in Daily Maverick 27 November 2017

Should free expression fans fight to close ANN7?

It is easy to support freedom of speech for views one is comfortable with. The test of tolerance and openness, though, is whether we can live with views that make us uncomfortable. So should we be trying to stop the broadcasting of the Gupta television channel ANN7, or is this an attack on freedom of expression?

Those who are calling for pay-TV hosts Multichoice to act against ANN7, or at the very least to stop paying for it, are adamant they are not doing it because they don’t like the channel.

They say it is not a genuine news channel, but an unethical purveyor of fake news designed to poison our political debate; it has been illegally and improperly funded by the diversion of public funds; or that Multichoice should not be subsidising an instrument of state capture.

They argue that they are not shutting it down, as it can find other ways to broadcast and fund itself, but they want Multichoice to stop paying for it.

The problem is that this can look like the silencing of a dissenting voice, however unpleasant and harmful that voice may be.

Let’s be clear: fake news, the deliberate and malicious dissemination of false and harmful information, is a real and present danger. Some of it is politically motivated, by those who want to distort our democracy, and some of it is profit-motivated, just an easy way to make a quick buck.

Either way, we cannot sit back and allow it to poison our political debate, as it has done elsewhere. We have to face up and deal with the fact that the Internet enables the wide dissemination of harmful and dangerous material, including by purveyors of racism and hatred.

But how do we do that without silencing dissent and killing off our free media – and the democracy that depends on open debate?

Let’s start by clearing a few myths. It is not unusual for Multichoice to pay for content, and it is healthy for them to carry a diversity of news channels. What raises eyebrows is the leaked information that ANN7 asked Multichoice to treble their payment from R50-m to R150-m per year, and remove any clause in their contract that would enable Multichoice to cancel the agreement if ANN7 did not meet their standard requirements. Multichoice denies that they agreed to this, and on commercial terms there would be no reason to meet such demands from an amateurish, fringe station that commands only about 8% of the news channel audience. (Full disclosure: I am a former editor-in-chief of the rival channel, eNCA.)

We do know, though, that ANN7 owners have clout with government, and Multichoice and its owners, Naspers, are dependent on their pay-TV licence and therefore vulnerable to political persuasion. If the ANN7 owners could lean on government, as we know they are able to do, and government could lean on the regulator, which we alsi know they are able to do, then Multichoice might be inclined to quietly go along with it. For them, billions are at stake, compared to the few hundred million that it might take to buy ANN7’s support.

I think there is a better approach to the problem of how to deal with fake news and bad, unbalanced, unethical and potentially harmful journalism. Those who are uncomfortable with ANN7s coverage should monitor it closely and report innacurate or unfair coverage to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission amd to Multichoice. If a record of serial misconduct is built up, the BCCSA and Multichoice can be pressured into doing something about it.

At the same time, let’s challenge ANN7’s fake business model, which is to sell their time to government departments and parastatals in exchange for soft, uncritical coverage. Some of these parastatals – like Eskom and, amazingly since it is a competitor, the SABC – have been prepared to pay vastly inflated amounts to ANN7 and their sister newspaper, New Age, as part of this deal. But this has been exposed – and such action to prevent the abuse of taxpayer’s money can be stepped up.
Let’s rather shame ANN7 into improving the standards of their coverage and expose those who think it is acceptable to use public money to buy friendly reporting and undermine the quality of our journalism.

*First appeared in Daily Maverick 23 November 2017

Celebrate the best of our investigative reporters, but remember the worst as well

While we celebrate the work of investigative reporters in exposing state capture and corruption, we also need to interrogate where some of our colleagues went wrong – and how damaging this has been.

We hail the work of those who – with doggedness, skill and bravery – are calling to account our president, his friends, family and allies, and exposing the extent to which they have destroyed individuals and institutions while they loot the public fiscus. Where most other institutions of accountability– such as the new Public Protector, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Hawks and the SA Revenue Services – have fallen short, a coterie of journalists have filled the gap.

Jacques Pauw is, deservedly, the man of the moment, having uncovered some incredible dirt to add to the pile that is already out, and written it with maximum impact and consummate timing. But he is building on the work of others, such as the amaBhungane/Daily Maverick Scorpio team of Stefaans Brummer, Sam Sole, Susan Comrie and others; Sikonathi Mantshansha at the Financial Mail, and Adriaan Basson and Pieter-Louis Myburgh at News24.

But Pauw also highlights in his book instances where journalists allowed themselves to be used by those out to capture institutions like SARS and the Hawks, with devastating results.

Sadly, the name of the country’s biggest newspaper, the Sunday Times, and some of its most senior journalists, pops up frequently in these stories.

The best-known case is that of the Sunday Times’ reporting two years ago on an alleged “rogue unit” in SARS. The story began with a legitimate tale of sex and power: SARS official Johann van Loggerenberg had an affair with a Pretoria lawyer, Belinda Walters, who was acting for someone Van Loggerenberg was investigating. She turned out to be a double-crossing triple agent, and when their relationship went sour, both the Sunday Times and City Press exposed an apparently legitimate story, though each favoured a different side in the dispute, depending on who their main source was.

But the Sunday Times went on to report that Van Loggerenberg’s unit had gone rogue, even bugging the presidency and running a brothel. They ran a total of 35 stories over a two-year period.

These stories were used to attack, harass, humiliate, dismiss and prosecute Van Loggerenberg and others who were among the tax authority’s best people, allowing a free hand to those, under SARS head Tom Moyane, who wanted them out of the way so that he could protect the president and his allies.

As Pauw put it: “The Sunday Times journalists have contributed greatly to ending the careers of dedicated civil servants and ultimately enable Tom Moyane to break the tax collector.”

The Press Ombusdman ruled in a series of judgments during December 2015/ January 2016 that these stories were “inaccurate, misleading and unfair” and a “serious breach” of the Code of Conduct. They were ordered to retract and apologise.

It took the Sunday Times a while, and a change of editor, but in April 2016 the paper ran a full-page withdrawal and apology.

The damage, though, was done.

Pauw also lambasts the Sunday Times 2011 report that General Johan Booysen was running what was effectively a police hit squad in KwaZulu-Natal. This story is hotly disputed, with the Sunday Times team adamant that their evidence is good, while Pauw and others believe Booysen was a good crime-fighter targeted because he was nailing corruption in his area. This story is potentially embarrassing, as it won the major Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism (in which I was a judge).

When when one tries to wade through these conflicting versions, one finds that the people at the centre of them are seldom clean (Loggerenberg did have the compromising affair which kick-started the story, and Booysen may well have a case to answer on some of the killings attributed to his team). It becomes almost impossible to discern the truth between radically conflicting versions with some truth in each side. And, once the Sunday Times’ credibility was damaged, everything else after that has to be looked at more closely.

Another was the allegation that drove Anwa Dramat and Shadrack Sibiya out of top positions in the Hawks. They were accused of taking part in the illegal rendition of Zimbabwean nationals.

Pauw cites these as key moments in the push to drive out from these important institutions good people who were acting against corruption, and freeing the hands of those who wanted to get into the till. Some of the journalists were innocent victims of manipulation (though they still need to answer for how they allowed this), while one or two appear to have been seriously negligent, perhaps even knowing participants in the factionalism.

In some ways, it seems harsh to pick out the Sunday Times, especially since some of these stories are old and their team also did many good and important stories. MNet’s Carte Blanche, on the other hand, aired the “rogue unit” story and have not retracted it.

A few years before this, I was one of a team of outsiders commissioned by the Sunday Times to investigate and report on a series of stories which had gone horribly wrong. Those with a memory for the bizarre might remember one of these, which appeared under the headline, ‘Cape Town sells its sea’.

We interviewed most of the staff and wrote a long report which revealed the structural problems in the Sunday Times newsroom that led to these mistakes. Some of them still seem pertinent:

Too many people were interceding between the reporters and the end product to rewrite – and “sex up” – stories. Reporters lost control of their stories, and the search for racy intros and headlines sometimes distorted facts.
Fact-checking had become a formality, rather than an embedded culture.
The investigations team operated in secrecy as an untouchable elite.
Insufficient planning meant that there was too much pressure on a Saturday afternoon to find a great front page, and caution was sometimes thrown to the wind.
In general, and ironically for a group of people who do well in holding others to account, we said there was insufficient accountability and much arrogance in the newsroom.

The report caused a brief flurry, and the paper moved on. Promises to bring us back to review progress six months later did not materialise.

One of the journalists, Stephan Hofstatter, said a few things on the radio this week that reminded me of this. He said the allegation that SARS had run a brothel had been found in a SARS memo, but they had not checked it out. This was a good example of a fact being “sexed up” without enough time on deadline to confirm what was a wild claim.

He also said he was not the lead writer in some of these stories and the next day “did not recognise my name on the story”. He was implying that the story had been done by a team of which he was just one part, he had lost control of the details once it was in the hands of editors, and it had been “sexed up”.

Lots of people have been damaged by these practices, including journalists.

*First appeared in Daily Maverick 10 Nov 2017

Troublemakers roll into town

Eleven hundred of the world’s most troublesome journalists will spend three days giving each other tips on how to call to account the rich and the powerful, swapping tools and techniques, software and hardware, and stories of derring-do. They will build networks to assist and support each other in their communal quest to shine light into every dark corner of the world and make miserable those who depend on secrecy to do the things they shouldn’t be doing.

It is enough to keep the Zuptas awake at night – perhaps even during Budget speeches.

It will include Anas Anas, the Ghanian undercover journalist who systematically bribed dozens of judges, filmed them while doing so, and then worked with police to have them charged. He is a controversial character who will be the centre of much debate, particularly among those journalists who frown upon working hand-in-hand with the police.

Jacques Pauw will leave his life as a Riebek Kasteel chef again to make an appearance, as his book The President’s Keepers will be the focus on some attention and discussion.

Kenya’s John-Allan Namu, head of African Uncensored, who has done important work in exposing police wrongdoing; Dapo Olorunyomi, arch-corruption buster from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Reporting, and Oluwatoyosi Ogunseye, the first woman editor of Sunday Punch in Nigeria, will be there.
And so will representatives of the global teams who worked together on this week’s massive Paradise Papers leaks, the previous Swiss Leaks investigation, which involved 170 reporters in 60 countries, and the Panama Papers, the biggest ever trove of data (2,6 terabytes, 11.5-million files) all of which opened up the world of secret bank accounts, tax avoidance and illicit financial movements.

Some of the other stories that will be highlighted include the work of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Corruption Reporting Project which exposed a massive arms pipeline between Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East; the theft of $200-million in Iraqi education funds; the “Gujarat Files”, which exposed the complicity of top officials in 2002 religious riots, and a Chinese investigation into the money-politics connection in China.

There will be about 250 speakers altogether, not least of all some of our own local #GuptaLeaks heroes, who continue to trawl the thousands of leaked “State Capture” emails.

The event is the 10th biennial gathering of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, taking place at Wits University in mid-November, the first time this meeting has been held in Africa and the biggest-ever such gathering. It will be an unexpected celebration of what has become something of a golden era of investigative reporting, despite the huge financial and political pressures that these journalists are facing.

This golden era is largely due to the capacity now for large-scale leaks of unprecedented quantities of digital information. The scale of these leaks means that they often require international co-operation of large teams of investigators. It is at conferences such as this one that these networks are built, and journalists agree on how to work together to extract the full value of the information.
Lots of new technologies will be on show, such as an immersive virtual reality showcase, and there will be lots of training in computer-assisted reporting and data journalism.

At the same time, investigative reporters will have a lot to worry about. How will they continue to fund their work, when many newsrooms around the world are shrinking and cost-cutting? It is striking how much of the work, here and around the world, is now funded by philanthropic foundations who have stepped into the gap left by financially stressed media owners. Is this sustainable? How does it affect the independence of journalists?

How do investigative reporters remain safe, and how do they co-operate and communicate with each other in safety? The tools they use to probe are often also tools that can be used against them, to watch them, compromise their sources and steal their data. At the previous conference in Norway, I heard an expert spend half his talk telling journalists how to use social media to follow people, and the other half on how to stop others doing it to them.

Journalists will ponder the recent car-bomb death of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was involved in the Panama Papers investigation. And there will be a memorial lecture in honour of Carlos Cardoso, the Mozambican journalist killed in 2002 while investigating corruption, reminders of how high-risk this work can be.

They will revel in the free speech we enjoy in South Africa, as few of them have as much in their own countries. But they will probably also read the introduction to veteran reporter Jacques Pauw’s remarkable new book, The President’s Keepers: Those keeping Zuma in power and out of prison: “Once again, I was speaking to sources in a hushed voice, changing venues at the very last minute, and exchanging encrypted messages. At meetings, some told me to switch off my phone and take the battery out. They reminded me that sensitive state institutions were the victims of mysterious break-ins. We were back in the era of dirty tricks.”

They will undoubtedly think how remarkable it is that a book like this can be written, and that the president at the centre of it can survive. No doubt, the hard-bitten muckrakers from around the world will raise their glasses of South African wine – which I expect will flow like emails from Saxonwold – and toast both the achievements, and the frustrations, of investigative reporting.

*First published: Daily Maverick Nov 6, 2017

The Times they are a’disappearing

The closure of a newspaper always brings a wave of nostalgia about ink on fingers, the decline of in-depth reporting and the role newspapers have played in the fabric of a country and the daily lives of individuals. Over-40s talk about how much the newspaper was a part of their lives, and how the online product is just not “a nation talking to itself”, as Arthur Miller said of great newspapers. The under-40s look up from their smarts phones briefly to roll their eyes and mouth something like, “Get over it”.

So it is today with the announcement of the planned closure of the 10-year-old Times daily newspaper in favour of a “digital-only daily premium product”. Andy Gill, managing director of media in the Tiso Blackstar Group (formerly Times Media) said that “despite several changes which have been introduced to the business model over the past few years, the print product has remained unprofitable”.

The company has begun a consultation process with staff about restructuring and “possible retrenchments”. That is management talk for we are closing, but the law requires us to go through a long and torturous process to pretend we can try and save things. Deadline for this is the end of January 2018, but, given the inevitability of the outcome, it is likely to be one of those rare occassions when a newspaper beats a deadline.

The Times was built on an odd and unworkable business model, the brainchild of former publisher and editor Mike Robertson. It was initially given out free to Sunday Times subscribers and only later did they sell separate subscriptions and put it into in retail outlets. This was an expensive cross-subsidisation and the paper – though a fresh and lively addition to the morning market – never sold enough advertising to stand on its own feet. Robertson controversially hid most of the cost by mixing it in with the Sunday Times.

When Robertson left and later Tiso Blackstar took control under the tough Andrew Bonamour, they began to unravel the costs and try to bring them down, through measures such as limiting the circulation footprint. They went through two or three cost-cuttings, until with the latest one it became clear that this was not going to stop the bleeding, according to insiders close to the decision-making.
While this week’s announcement will not come as a great surprise, it will be most painful for the old newspaper hands who don’t find a place in the digital product. Managers are assuring staff that they won’t be cutting editorial jobs wholesale, because content-providers will be needed for the digital edition, but there will be blood on the floor and editorial skill and experience will be lost.

Will other newspapers be close behind? Certainly, the signs of decline are more dramatic every year. The latest circulation figures show daily newspapers down 11,2% in a year, weeklies 7% and weekends 12%. Magazines were down 13%. Previously, there were always some exceptions – such as weekly and isiZulu newspapers – but this year the shrinkage has been across-the-board.

Media24 CEO Esmare Weidemann says it is not a matter of whether newspapers will close in favour of their online equivalents, but when. “We don’t know whether it will be five or 10 years,” she told me, “but we have to be ready”.

Tiso Blackstar still has the Sunday Times, a cash-cow despite its declining circulation. And it has dominance now of the business sector, with Business Day, Financial Mail and BusinessLive.com. But, like all these groups, they are struggling with declining traditional revenue and slow online revenue.
Sekunjalo Independent Newspapers under Iqbal Surve has seen some of the most dramatic circulation losses and some of the most profitable parts of the business, such as the printing and community media arms, stripped out into his personal ownership. The strategy there seems to be one of harvesting short-term profits rather than planning long-term survival.

All of these media groups are struggling to make their online operations work as their traditional products decline. While they have had some success with building audience online, this has not been matched with the revenues to sustain it (with the exception of Afrikaans media, one of the few sectors where the audience has been prepared to subscribe to an online news service).

In Joburg, you will still have a choice of eight daily newspapers, including seven in English (or near-English). The most precarious one on the list is probably New Age, which former government spokesperson Mzwanele Manyi took over recently from the Gupta family. Their business model is based on swopping favourable government coverage for state advertising – a precarious one in these volatile times, but one that allows them to ignore their dismal circulation.

Will all of this impact on the investigative journalism which has been at the heart of the state capture story in recent weeks. Will these cuts means fewer resources for those who have had to spend weeks trawling through the GuptaLeaks emails?

The Sunday Times is adamant that they still see this work – though risky and expensive – as essential to keeping their audience. Indeed, their circulation jumped around 40 000 at the height of the GuptaLeaks story, and they kept about 10% of that when it died down.

Much of this work has shifted from newspapers to independent and or online operations (like Amabhungane and Daily Maverick), and from commercial operations to donor-funded non-profits. Dedicated individuals keep it going.

But we have to be concerned that the decline of traditional newsrooms opens up more space for fake news. With newspapers closing, online operations struggling and newsrooms squeezed everywhere, there are fewer resources to do the traditional selecting and verifying and more capacity for fake news to spread unchecked through social media.

It won’t be easy to just “get over it”.

*This column first appeared in Daily Maveric on Nov 3, 2017

Was it right to publish the Ramaphosa emails?

No editor worth their salt likes to sit on juicy information. The basic (and correct) instinct of a journalist is to publish and be damned, never to hide something from one’s audience and always allow them make their own informed judgements.

But was is right for the Sunday Independent to publish Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s private emails? And did they do it in an appropriate way?

Editor Steve Motale

The Press Council and broadcasting codes of conduct enjoin us to “exercise care and consideration in matters involving private lives” but adds that this right to privacy might be overridden by the public interest.

So is it in the public interest to know whether a presidential candidate is faithful to his wife? Does it show hypocrisy or dishonesty? Or does it just cheapen our public debate, and shift our attention from more pressing issues in the leadership contest?

There is conflicting international practice. The French allow for their public figures’ lives to remain largely private, and their media have often known about presidential peccadilloes without feeling an obligation to publish it.

The more prurient Americans, however, have moved from largely ignoring it in the time of President John Kennedy, to rushing to print more recently when they could argue that it shows hypocrisy or dishonesty.

The British tabloids have been driven to publish whatever they can by populism and sales, rather than any ethical principle.

In South Africa, there has been a mixed history. The most un-Calvinist partying of apartheid foreign minister Pik Botha was well known to journalists, but there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” to stay away from it. (Like most such agreements, there were no gentlemen involved.)

On the other hand, the security police taped and leaked explicit recordings of political and religious leader Allan Boesak having an affair with a colleague. Many newspapers stayed away from a story tainted by its source, but The Star published it while making clear that it was part of a police dirty tricks campaign. They argued that the public should know when a religious leader was breaking the rules, and when the police were getting up to dirty tricks.

At the time, police had Stratcom, a unit dedicated to creating and spreading information – true and false – to undermine government opponents and critics. One has to wonder if there are elements doing this again.

In other ways, times have changed. Now information often spreads first on social media without the filter of editorial decision-making, and the traditional media is playing catch-up. Many editors would argue that they would be foolish to ignore what is already out in the open.

In the Ramaphosa case, editor Steve Motale says he had the information for some months before putting questions about it to Ramaphosa. These questions were leaked on social media and he came under “enormous pressure” to show that he could back his allegations.

Interestingly, in his defensive piece explaining his actions, “Here is the truth”, Motale does not argue the ethical case for publishing, but implies that he was forced to act because of the social media leak, dodging responsibility for his own decisions.

Since he has acknowledged working closely with the shady characters Kenny Kunene and Gayton McKenzie, it is likely that they, or others they were working with, leaked it to force Motale’s hand at a critical time in the presidential campaign.

Kunene is responsible for Weekly Xposé, one of the most notorious of the fake news sites which have emerged in recent months. It features headlines such as “My ten years of hell with Ramaphosa” and “How Ramaphosa Turned a Young Mother into a Personal Porn Star”.

This points to another factor at play here. Motale is closely identified with the camp of President Jacob Zuma and seems content to ally himself with that campaign and some of the shadiest figures around it. Motale was ousted from his previous post as editor of the Citizen after publishing an apology for criticising Zuma and a series of dubious stories that were being peddled by the Zuma camp.

It is not unusual for newspapers to adopt a viewpoint and for this to shape their coverage, but there is an increasing tendency to bend the rules of fair and accurate journalism in the interests of a political campaign.

South African media are increasingly in the hands of those who use it for such political ends, and the space is shrinking for independent, critical journalism which would place a higher premium on principles such as accuracy and balance.

Motale wrote his report with a heavy hand, with little attempt to disguise his views. “Ramaphosa, whose presidential campaign is modeled on moral and ethical leadership, appears not to practise what he preaches,” was his introduction, more opinion than fact.

From “documents linking him to at least eight women, many of whom he maintains financially”, he deduced that Ramaphosa “is allegedly using his wealth to prey on multiple women”.

Ramaphosa says he and his wife support these women’s university studies. Motale accuses him of being a “sugar daddy” or “blesser”. Hostile interpretation is layered upon the facts.

Most signifiant, though, is that Motale does not deal with how he acquired these emails. He may be obliged to protect individuals, but if they are elements of state security who have been abusing their office to influence the leadership battles – as Ramaphosa suggests – then Motale is not telling the whole story, and leaving out what may be the most important parts.

Sources for stories such as these are almost always tainted, but this does not necessarily invalidate the story that arises out of them. But if Motale knows that they come from the president’s office or from state security quarters, then he should feel obliged to tackle this – much bigger – story as well.

This is where the real significance of the story may lie: demonstrating how far some are prepared to go in this leadership battle. It does not auger well for the ANC’s December conference, but suggest that it is going to be dirtier and more destructive and divisive than ever.

It could take down the ANC. Let’s hope they don’t take down the media with it.

*First published on News24, September 13, 2017

How do we deal with fake news?

Are these leaked accusations about deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s marital infidelities true? Is this real or is it fake news? How does one even know who to believe?

Sifting fact from fiction is one of the biggest challenges facing society today.

Of course, fake news is not new. You may remember US President Richard Nixon saying: “I am not a crook”; President Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman”; and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s detailed evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. At home, the apartheid government’s Stratcom spread stories claiming Joe Slovo — rather than Pretoria’s own agents — killed his wife, Ruth First.

They were all spreading disinformation to mislead citizens for their own political purposes. Today, we call it “fake news”.

So what changed? Why did the Oxford Dictionary name “post-truth” its new word of the year last year?

A search of new books on Amazon reveals six titles about the subject, three of which have the word “bullshit” in the title. In one of them, Evan Davis tells us we are at “peak bullshit” — but this is the optimistic view: from a peak, we can only go down.

The phenomenon has spawned neologisms, such as bot (a robot that floods social media with messages), cyborg (the combination of a human brain and a bot to manipulate social media) and weaponising (turning social media into a political tool).

But if it’s been around for years, why is there such great concern about it now?

Well, for a start, US President Donald Trump has taken contempt for truth to a new level. For example, he claimed he had attracted the largest inauguration crowd, when the evidence showed the opposite. During his campaign, he also said US unemployment was about 40%, when it was closer to 5%.

When challenged on the size of the inaugural crowd, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said: “Don’t be so overly dramatic” — these were just “alternative facts”.

It’s not just spin — it’s paying no heed to truth at all.

In SA, we have recently seen a proliferation of fake news polluting the political atmosphere.

One false e-mail, accusing an insurance company of being racist, went viral — but it turned out it was just the work of a disgruntled customer.

Elsewhere, we’ve seen false claims against journalists — such as Huffington Post’s Ferial Haffajee and Tiso Blackstar group editor at large Peter Bruce — from a systematic, well-resourced and extensive campaign to discredit them.

While dirty tricks have long existed, the Internet and social media have made them far more powerful.

On the Internet, the absence of gatekeepers — the editors, subeditors and fact-checkers who filter and verify claims before they air in traditional media — allows for great freedom of speech. But the flip-side is that this includes the freedom to spread malicious, fraudulent and dangerous material.

A few decades ago, if there were an allegation that Ramaphosa had beaten his wife, it would not have gone out without the media calling the claim into question.

But social media enables instant dissemination without anyone checking the information.

A professional journalist who did this would be blackballed by his or her peers. But for social media trolls, there are seldom adverse consequences. Here, anonymity is critical: culprits hide their identities, safe in the knowledge that they can’t be held accountable.

Sometimes fake news is spread as a joke. An image of a shark on a Houston freeway during last week’s US floods turned out to be a manipulated photograph. But it was cited with horror on Talk Radio 702 and a US television station before they realised they were being conned.

But on other occasions, the consequences are worse. Nobody knows the extent to which fake news influenced Hillary Clinton’s denouement in the US election or the result of the Brexit referendum — but the fact that the (false) Brexit claim that the UK sends £350m/week to Europe is still being repeated is revealing.

However, the critical moment comes when the story reaches the mainstream media, with its supposed gatekeepers.

Sometimes, the media refutes the story and puts the record straight (as happened with the insurance company). But with Ramaphosa, one newspaper gave the story authenticity, even as most others treated it with scepticism and framed it as part of a dirty tricks smear campaign.

Of course, there are many other cases of traditional media giving credibility to manipulated information. Three years ago, for example, the Sunday Times carried stories of how a “rogue unit” in the SA Revenue Service ran a brothel and bugged the presidency. The paper later recanted, but it seems it had been taken in by one faction of a vicious internal dispute.

Today, there are two other dynamics at play.

First, elements of our traditional media have become highly partisan, actively supporting not just political parties but factions within them. This isn’t new: newspapers have often taken a political standpoint that shapes coverage. But the difference lies in the increased willingness of some to bend the rules of journalism: balance, fair play and accuracy.

For example, The New Age newspaper and its sister ANN7 television channel were created to serve the Gupta family. They have been relentless in propagating spurious allegations against the family’s opponents.

Second, the space for independent, critical journalism that cares more about accuracy, verification, balance and ethical practices is shrinking under financial and political pressure.

All SA’s newsrooms are less than half the size they were a decade ago. This means fewer filters and less fact-checking. The upshot is that at the very time that social media demands greater vigilance, most newsrooms have fewer resources to sift the real from the fake.

During the US campaign, when it looked as though Trump couldn’t win, he began talking about the election being rigged. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said (using a stock phrase of those about to be dishonest), adding that he was hearing “more and more” about evidence of rigging.

On the other side of the country, according to the New York Times, a college student named Cameron Harris, newly graduated and in need of cash, sat down at his kitchen table with his laptop, and wrote a headline: “Breaking story: Tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse”.

Harris Photoshopped the label “Ballot boxes” onto a picture he’d found on the Internet (from another time and place), and posted them on his website, which was cynically named “Christian Times Newspaper” for his conservative mid-Western target audience.

He added the journalistic touches that made it feel authentic: the word “Breaking” in the headline; quotation marks to indicate it was a claim; and his last line promised that “this story is still developing and CTN will bring you more when we have it”.

Six million people saw it.

Why? For money. The traffic to the site earned him pay-per-click advertising revenue of up to $100,000 for this and other stories.

There’s another enlightening example from Veles, a small town of just 45,000 people in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

During the US election campaign, 140 websites were set up in Veles to publish aggressive pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives in the US. They sounded authentic: WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com and DonaldTrumpNews.co.

But when US website BuzzFeed investigated, it turned out they were all bogus.

The young Macedonians who ran these sites didn’t care about Trump. They were responding to straightforward economic incentives: an American Facebook user is more valuable than any other. Every time someone clicked on their site they earned money.

One such site, Ending the Fed, which didn’t list an owner, was responsible for four of the top 10 false election stories. It included fake stories on how Pope Francis endorsed Trump and how Clinton sold weapons to terror group Islamic State.

In SA, most fake news sites are not financially motivated. Rather, they appear to be part of a well-resourced campaign to shift the news agenda away from the #GuptaLeaks and to influence the ANC presidential race.

British firm Bell Pottinger, hired by the Guptas, was at the centre of this use of the “dark arts” of public relations to “weaponise” social media. But this week, the company was booted out of the UK’s Public Relations & Communications Association for “bringing the industry into disrepute”.

In SA, of course, we have something of a unique twist, as our fake news sometimes takes the form of dubious “intelligence reports”.

It was just such a report that President Jacob Zuma cited when he controversially fired finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March. The intelligence services distanced themselves from the document, but it raised questions about the role of rogue elements in disrupting our politics.

More recently, newspapers ran reports on “Project Wonder”, saying police minister Fikile Mbalula was the target of an intra-police life-and-death battle. Though the reports carried all the red flags of political manipulation, the origin or authenticity of that report is still unclear.

The real question is: what can be done? Bell Pottinger has been called to account by its peers and clients, but is this enough? After all, it does not deal with the youths of Veles, or the individual in his kitchen weaponising his laptop.

Fact-checking operations, which are springing up all over, are useful. Among these is Africa Check, which verifies claims made in the public arena.

Though some critics will use the “fake news” issue to call for government regulation of the Internet, this will meet resistance from those who (rightly) fear giving government a role in overseeing content.

An alternative would be for government to regulate only so far as to limit anonymity, or to put the onus on Internet service providers to maintain controls. However, this would only stretch as far as our borders, leaving those beyond government’s reach untouched.

But at this stage it is unclear whether it is enough to rely on individuals to be sceptical about what they read until it is verified, or to rely on the shrinking traditional media to fact-check claims.

Would it be a good idea to break up Naspers? Not so fast …

When Ton Vosloo tapped Koos Bekker to take over as CEO of the Naspers in 1996, Bekker said he would take no salary, no benefits, and a contract that would allow him to be dismissed without a golden handshake if he did not deliver.

But he wanted to be paid in shares.

Vosloo was generous in response, giving Bekker a big bundle of shares. Exactly how many is not known for the first five-year contract, because it was not then a JSE requirement to divulge it. But in his second five-year contract he received 11,6-million shares, about 3% of the company. If he sold this second lot as they were released, Bekker would have profited at as much as R1-billion per year. At today’s value, that 3% would be worth over R30-billion, and he had three five-year contracts as CEO before he became chair, each coming with a bundle of shares.

In a country where CEOs of major companies ogten, Bekker is in a league of his own.

No doubt, when he chose his successor, he needed to show some generosity. Bob van Dijk earned R63-m this year – nothing like what Bekker earned but still breathtakingly high. And at last week’s AMG, shareholders were questioning it.

The logic of Bekker’s pay deal was, of course, was that he was prepared to bet on the company and share the risk – getting nothing if he did not deliver as CEO. Bekker could do this because he had made a personal fortune already on the MTN launch.

Indeed, things looked bleak when the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, and the Naspers share dropped from just over R100 to R12 – well below its listing price of R19 seven years earlier. Bekker would have been out of pocket for his first five years of service if he took up and sold his shares then. In fact, he was lucky to keep his job. But nobody could have predicted that Bekker would take Naspers from that low point to where it is today, topping R3 000 per share last week. That’s a 250-fold growth, and a 50% growth in the share price in the last year alone.

The reason for this extraordinary boom has something to do with good management, a fair amount to do with Bekker’s willingness to take calculated risk, , but most of all it is the result of astounding good fortune.

After the 2001 crash, Naspers decided to pull out of most of its Chinese and other international interests, and wrote off many hundreds of millions in investment . As they were leaving Beijing, Bekker was approached by two young men who had started an internet operation called Tencent , which was already signing up users at a remarkable pace. Against the decision to withdraw, Bekker took a gamble on 49% of their company for R266-m.

Tencent today is worth $390-bn (over R5-trillion) and growing fast. Naspers has diluted to 33% of the company, but Tencent is still the major factor in the extraordinary growth of Naspers and how well it has done for its shareholders, especially Bekker.

Which is why shareholders are upset. They can’t complain that they haven’t made pots of money, more than they would have on any comparable investment over this period of time. But their shares still appear undervalued.

Their investment alone in Tencent is worth substantially more than the current Naspers market capitalisation of R1,3-trillion. This means that the Tencent share is undervalued, and the market is ascribing negative value to its many other, very substantial assets – like Media24, which is the giant of South Africa’s media industry, the huge cash-producing Multichoice/DSTV, Mail.RU in Russia, eMAG and dozens of others in 120 countries.

This makes Naspers a natural target for an asset-stripping break-up, which could release huge value. Just releasing the Tencent shares to Naspers shareholders would get them an additional $31-bn, and that is before you ascribe value to the other assets. Shareholders are restless.

Why should Van Dijk earn so much when all the value comes from Tencent, an investment which he does not even run, they argue? Why should he do so well when he is failing to get the value out of the other assets where he has greater control? If you strip out Tencent, then the balance of assets made a trading loss of over $200-mllion.

Van Dijk is the easy target for shareholders who are looking to realise what they see as the hidden value in the company. It is not that they are unhappy with his performance, but some are seeing a potential for more quick profits.

Greedy, you might, say, considering they have done so well from the company already.

It is also unrealistic, as Bekker has an iron grip on the company through an N-share structure, an anachronistic hold-over from the days when such control mechanisms were still allowed by the JSE.
The company’s N-shares have 1 000 votes each, as against one vote for ordinary shares. So the majority may have voted last week against the remuneration policy, but the policy will stand.

Since the days of apartheid, when Naspers was very much part of the Afrikaner nationalist project, National Party cabinet ministers sat on its board and its political editors attended closed National Party executive meetings, these shares were held by Sanlam, to keep them in the political family.
Seeing the value, another giant Afrikaner company, PSG, in 2008 quietly offered Sanlam a huge premium for the small number of controlling shares. Bekker and his close friend and long-term colleague Cobus Stofberg took fright at the prospect of a silent takeover, sold a bunch of their ordinary shares and bid even higher to take control. These shares hold 68% of the votes and how they are held is a dark secret.

Bekker argued that this was necessary to preserve the independence of a media operation which had shifted from being a friend of the apartheid government to a more independent critic of the democratic government. Also, the Chinese government – which keeps an iron grip on its media, and a cast iron grip on foreign investors – might not allow a foreign company to hold such a large chunk of a media operation unless control was clear and stable and to their liking.

Indeed, the prosperity of Naspers is dependent on its relationship with the Chinese government, not unlike its earlier relationship with the apartheid government. This might explain why when the previous Chinese premier visited South Africa, Bekker draped a massive banner welcoming him over Nasper’s prominent Cape Town building.

Should this relationship go sour, the company would fall apart.

Tight control, Bekker has argued, is a necessity. So is size in the global internet market and a steady, long-term view. It is their size that allows them to spend a over $1-billion (R13-billion) this year on development, up 8% from last year.

They list six companies in their portfolio as 3-5 years away from reaching their full potential, with five as “high-growth opportunities” and a couple that will take five or more years, indicating that they see significant value coming in time from a number of their other assets. Shareholders might get a quick profit if they broke up the company now, but then what?

That is why he dismissed the agitators so firmly and abruptly at last week’s AGM.

Interestingly, Nasper’s apartheid past (when it was known as Nasional Pers) is also coming back to haunt it. Vosloo has always portrayed himself and Naspers as key drivers of reform in the National Party and early supporters of negotiations in the 1980s. He refused to go before the Truth Commission to account for Nasper’s role in apartheid, and was livid when a large group of his staff did so and expressed regret for the role the group had played in failing properly to report on the horrors of that period.

How embarrasing then when details recently emerged of company donations to the National Party through the 1980s, including warm letters of appreciation from Vosloo to Presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk. These were published recently in Daily Maverick and Hennnie van Vuuren’s book, Apartheid Guns and Money.
As late as August 1989, Vosloo was writing to the National Party leadership promising a substantial donation, pledging Nasper’s wholesale support and describing their newspaper Beeld as “your ally” which would help the party “wipe out” the opposition.

This is particularly relevant as there has long been speculation over the deal that gave Naspers control of MNet (now Multichoice and DSTV) during that period. Faced with over 100 applicants for the pay-TV licence in 1982, the government handed it to a consortium of newspaper companies led by Naspers. That pay-back saved a struggling Naspers and put it on its path of extraordinary growth since then. It was a mutually beneficial deal: the government gave Naspers control of the pay-TV monopoly and in return got the group’s political support at a critical time when it was shoring itself up against local and international pressure.

The real surprise was that this monopoly was preserved into the democratic era, giving Media24, the local media operation, the foundation to become the giant of the South African media sector, with the lion’s share of the newspaper, magazine, book and internet industries.

Would it be a good thing for shareholders to break up this operation and realise the full value in it? This might allow for greater diversity and the transformation of our media industry which many are agitating for. But, at a time when the sector is under dire financial pressure (Media24 had a 3% drop in revenue last year and a 34% drop in trading profit) , it would remove the protection the international group offers to its local operation. Would their newspapers, which have been shedding readership and revenue along with all the others, survive long without this big brother? Does this cover allow it to see through the difficult period until the shift to the internet starts to work, and new business models revive the news operation?

Ironically, some of Media24’s operations have become important carriers of critical, independent journalism, publishing and broadcasting – so breaking up the giant might have short-term, quick-profit benefits for shareholders, but uncertain results for the country and its media industry.

*Harber holds a small number of Naspers shares (which might tell you which way he thinks the wind is blowing). This article first appeared in Business Day.