Nairobi: youth unemployment
The simplistic narrative of a Kenyan rags-to-riches tale reveals how the media is complicit in ignoring the human cost of bad governance
The Kosovo area of Mathare, Nairobi’s largest
informal settlement Photo: Kanyi Wyban
Last year, an investigative journalist working for Kenya’s Citizen TV reported a heartrending story. The story was about Kelvin’ Ochieng’, a young man who had ended up homeless on the rough streets of Nairobi after graduating with a first-class honours in actuarial science. The 24-year-old had scored straight As at the famous Maranda High School before proceeding to the University of Nairobi. He had managed to pay for his university studies through a government loan, as well as a Chinese scholarship. But having completed his studies, he could not afford to pay 4,000 shillings (about $40) for his graduation, and so could not attend the ceremony. Now, he lived in the Kosovo area of Mathare, one of Kenya’s largest informal settlements. A friend, Christopher Oloo, had rescued him from the streets, offering him a place in the tiny single room he already shared with three other men. Ochieng’ had applied for many jobs but to no avail, despite his excellent qualifications. Because of that, he feared going back to his rural home.
The last time he had visited, he had found his family living in absolute poverty and clinging to the belief that he, the star of the family who had made it to university, would be their salvation. He told the reporter that he had sometimes contemplated suicide. The story is not, in fact, unusual. In Kenya, many young people work hard at their studies and excel, only to find that their certificates are meaningless. At the time of the interview, Ochieng’ was just one of many other young people scrambling for casual work, for example washing cars in the CBD. Badly served by a failing system, most of the country’s young people are condemned to live in poor socioeconomic conditions. The few who do not have to struggle have access to education and jobs through family or close contacts in government. So the story raises serious questions. What about the many other Ochieng’s one never hears about? In places like Mathare, many young people without even half of his level of education have to grapple with harsh daily realities.
People like the selfless Oloo, whose altruism was mentioned only in passing in the report. His role in the story was “normal” and less interesting than the “special” case of an unemployed graduate. The journalist got some of the details of living in Mathare right: the lack of proper latrines, the heavy stench of raw sewage. But she went on to claim that Mathare is one of the most dangerous slums in Nairobi, a scary place where you have to watch your back 24/7 because of the armed gangs. She did not notice that it was, at least partly, Oloo’s act of kindness that had brought her down into “the valley”. Implicitly, the report suggested that people with first-class degrees didn’t deserve to be homeless and without an income. The insecurity and stench of Mathare were the “normal” preserve of the “less educated”. In a tweet on 21 July, 2019, Mwalimu Wandia Njoya (a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger) said that Kenya’s system compounds a kleptocracy with “education-based discrimination”. I couldn’t agree more. With or without an education, nobody deserves to be poor. Every person should be at least economically able, regardless of their education level.
But bad governance prevails, dehumanising the very people politicians are supposed to serve. This is Christopher Oloo’s story. Like me, he was born in Mathare. Just this fact means that the limits of our ambitions are almost certainly set forever. His story is my story. My story is that of hundreds of thousands of other young Kenyans. His story is representative of thousands of young Kenyans whose futures are being ruined by political corruption, which steals resources that could be used for development and, hence, job creation. I am not on the outside looking in, nor am I on the inside looking out. I’m in the dead centre, looking around. Young people, and particularly young men, are stereotyped as “dirty”, and as “criminals” who threaten public security. The police operate in the valley as if the only social issues here are drugs and weapons. Encounters with police and other officials are to be avoided at any cost. As a young man, you are a target. The cops, commonly known as wakubwas (“the big men”), are simply uniformed robbers. They can stop and search you at any time, supposedly for evidence of illegal possessions, when, actually, they’re rifling your pockets for cash.
They might sniff your fingers, to check whether you have been smoking bangi (local term for marijuana). In some cases you will be made to spit on the ground, the idea being that a habitual smoker always has a dry throat. Everything has a price. Should the smell of marijuana be confirmed, negotiations about the cost of your freedom begin at a thousand shillings. If you are nabbed with something on you, it will cost you between two and three thousand shillings more. Failure to warm the fervent palm of the mkubwa in question may result in a smack to your head. Nyinyi ndio mnatemebea bila pesa, mkisumbua watu hapa! they say. (“You are the type that goes about without money while making a nuisance of yourself.”) As a young man in Mathare, you are guilty until proven innocent. Above all, do not make the elementary blunder of claiming to know your rights. The only time you ever hear the words, Kijana, rudi hapa (“come back soon, you are welcome, young man”), or a kind tone from the cops is when you part with “a little something”. The media almost never reflect such realities of everyday life in Mathare. Young people are constructed as central to the problems of urban criminality and idleness.
Then again, people like to say, “If you don’t like the ghetto, why don’t you just leave?” But where are we to go? Mathare is all the life Oloo has known. It’s the same for me. This is home. You are attached. People raise their children here and have invested what little capital they have here in their neighbourhood. The few who are lucky enough to “make it out” of Mathare often end up in another immiserated part of the Eastlands, with the same limited basic amenities, or worse. Following a fire at our house about two years ago, I helped my mother relocate to Githurai, another low income neighbourhood in Nairobi, where I thought that she would not have to worry about the risk of fire and other ghetto hazards. Less than three months later she moved back to Kosovo, in Mathare. At first, I could not make peace with her decision. But I had to accept that she ached for a familiar environment where she knew people and could trust them, and where she had learned her survival hacks. As they say, an old broom knows the room’s corners all too well.
Soon after the report about Ochieng’ was broadcast, the Nairobi News website reported that he had received more than a dozen job offers, including one from Nairobi county government, the Kenya Red Cross and Kenya’s forestry service. Many of these companies would already have received Ochieng’’s application and CV. What made the difference for him? That report on Citizen TV. Ochieng’ was selected as a worthy story – and good luck to him on that. But I would suggest that the story should not have stopped there: it should have been understood as a case study that reflected the problems many young Kenyans face. And that should have stimulated a search for real, tangible solutions to the problem of youth unemployment. We never see sustainable solutions to young people’s issues. Most often, the solutions proposed turn out to be short-term fixes that have more to do with harvesting cheap labour through catchy words like “platform”, “stipend”, “youth inclusion” and so forth, than with creating real opportunities for young people. An example is the government programme Kazi Kwa Vijana (KKV), launched in March 2oo9, which responded to post-election violence in 2008 by campaigning to “put youth to work”.
Six months later, Kenya’s media reported the project was already failing, citing mismanagement, corruption and late payments from Treasury. The initiative failed. Anyway, the campaign offered only low-wage manual labour with no prospect of skills development. Very often, too, we see issues relating to young people being discussed in their absence at cosmetic symposiums and panel discussions. Thus, their input and perspectives are not taken into account. This strips young people of the power to determine their own futures, and brings generational conflict. I accuse our mainstream media of complicity in this. Indirectly, well intended but misguided reporting affects hundreds of thousands of lives. The media’s profit-driven mentality denies people like Oloo the opportunity to speak truth to power. Sure, there are tensions between the demands of media ownership and editorial independence, but it would appear that, to the media owners, “news” is only about increasing readership or viewership subscription. I don’t bear any ill-will against the journalist who covered Ochieng’’s story, or her news team, for their blindness to reality.
They were only doing their jobs. But there’s the problem. Media owners have enormous power to shape public discourse – but apparently very little sense of accountability. In Kenya, moreover, they are sometimes state actors who use media platforms as propaganda machines to push tribalistic agendas. Many argue that our national independence has moved the country forward. However, this claim has very little to do with the everyday dilemmas of poor Kenyans, young, old, male and female. From their perspective, the country is a rusty tramp steamer with no lifeboats for the crew. On this ship, the traditional rule that women and children go first in the event of a problem has been turned on its head: now, they are the first to sink or swim. To many young people today, Kenya is a country that sets you up for failure. It often looks as if it is the intention that we should perish, one way or the other, sooner or later. In Mathare, young people are putting aside imposed social differences of religion, tribe and education to organise and empower themselves. This includes initiatives such as registering a youth group so as to be able to operate a car wash, getting into the boda boda (motorcycle transport) business and ventures in urban farming (see article in Africa in Fact 46, the Youth edition).
For them, this is the only way forward to economic liberation. In this way, we are rebelling against the status quo, which says that we should be patient and wait for opportunities to be thrown our way. In Mathare, young people are working to create a future for themselves, because it is clear that our government is not going to do so.
Nigeria: repressive government vs recalcitrant journalists
The Buhari regime’s efforts to muzzle the press threaten to set Nigerian democracy back by decades
Newspapers sold in the streets in Nigeria
Photo: STEFAN HEUNIS / AFP
I was in Lagos chewing roasted corn a little past 6pm one evening in October 2019 when an Abuja – based journalist rang me to inform me of a meeting at the headquarters of the Nigeria Correctional Service (NCS). The authorities were going to use the media to discredit my latest investigation, and I would subsequently be arrested and prosecuted on trumped-up charges. Back in July, I’d voluntarily spent two weeks in detention — five days in a police cell and eight as an inmate in Ikoyi Prison — to track corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system, beginning from the moment of arrest by the police to the point of release from prison. To experience the workings of the system in its raw state, I adopted the pseudonym Ojo Olajumoke and feigned an offence for which I was arrested and detained in police custody, arraigned in court and eventually remanded in prison.
I dismissed the phone call with a wave of the hand until exactly 9.41pm, when a WhatsApp message from a friend directed me to a tweet by @ AbdulMahmud01, who, I have to say, is a board member of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), which co-funded the story I had written with TheCable. Mahmud, relying on his sources, was sure I would be arrested. I made two more calls that night and it was clear I was in trouble. The first thing I did was to pull out of a Goethe Institut event in Lagos, where I was to join three other panellists in discussing the subject ‘Fake or Fact: Disinformation and (New) Media in Nigeria’. Dr Chidi Odinkalu, the former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), kick-started the trending of a hashtag ‘KeepFisayoSafe’ that would eventually force government to back down on the planned arrest. The outrage that followed preceded — and scuppered — the arrest. Other journalists, though, were not that lucky. One of them, Agba Jalingo, was well into his detention before it became public knowledge.
In July 2019, the journalist had accused Ben Ayade, the governor of Cross River, a state in Nigeria’s South-South, of diverting N500 million (about $1.4 million) released for the establishment of the Cross River State Microfinance Bank. He seemed to have good evidence, having consistently reported, through the years, about the establishment of the bank and its failure to take off eight months after the supposed release of the funds. Since his arrest in August last year, the Nigerian government has charged Jalingo with disturbance of public peace, cybercrime, terrorism and treason. Twice the court granted him bail, and twice the government denied him the opportunity to enjoy it. After almost a year of struggling to convince Nigerians that it was innocent of involvement in Jalingo’s arrest, the Cross River State government finally officially took over his prosecution in February this year.
Omoyele Sowore, human rights activist and founder of online news agency Sahara Reporters, hadn’t even kicked off his #RevolutionNow protests when the Department of State Services (DSS) picked him up at a private apartment in Lagos on 2 August, 2019 — three days before the start of the #DaysOfRage. He was grilled in Abuja for days before the orders of a federal high court were sought for his detention. But after state security disobeyed two orders by the same court for Sowore’s release on bail after months in detention, the tide started to turn against the government. On 24 December, three days after six US lawmakers wrote to the Nigerian Attorney-General to protest Sowore’s continued detention, the government released him, disguising their action by simultaneously freeing Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Adviser (NSA) who had been held since 2015 for alleged misappropriation of counterinsurgency funds.
Locally, the release was preceded by a landmark move: Punch, Nigeria’s most widely read newspaper, published a weighty editorial announcing that all its titles would henceforth prefix President Muhammadu Buhari’s name with his rank as a military dictator in the 80s, Major General, and refer to his administration as a regime, “until they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law”. In all three instances, the most notable constant was the bad press that government was getting or would have got. Jalingo’s Cross River Watch series projected the state government as corrupt, inept and unworthy of public trust. Sowore’s #RevolutionNow protests would have spotlighted the deep seated economic maladministration and insecurity that have plagued the Buhari administration since inception. My investigative series unveiled the sham that is the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria; it was a dent in the image of the judiciary, the police, the prisons and the interior ministry altogether.
The irony of this media repression is that Buhari and the state governors of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), ascended to power via the polls on the back of dissent with the former ruling party and championed by the media; the same group suddenly cannot stomach or overlook unflattering media coverage. It must irk them deeply that despite the repression, these journalists are not only refusing to cave in, they’re waxing strong. Their persecution appears to be further fuelling their drive rather than dampening it. The grace with which Jalingo has handled his trial belies the length of his incarceration. His broad smiles, loud cheers to supporters and generally boisterous demeanour on court days do not in any way suggest he’s spent six months in prison. Four weeks after the government tried to arrest me for investigating the police, prisons and courts undercover, I embarked on another undercover mission — this time to a government-run psychiatric hospital, the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Lagos, where admission conditions are undignified. I was their patient for three weeks, including 10 straight days on ward admission.
The previous arrest threat didn’t stop me and, as a matter of fact, I’m currently on my second investigation since that saga. Sowore, meanwhile, remains as bullheaded as he always was. In early February, when I met him in Abuja at the makeshift home he’s currently restricted to due to a clause in his bail conditions barring him from travelling out of Nigeria’s federal capital, he insisted his ongoing face-off with the state would be a “fight to the finish”. “I don’t care that I cannot travel out of Abuja; that’s their problem, not mine,” he told me confidently. “There’s no need to run away. We have to stay and fight this battle until the very end.” Repeated efforts to muzzle the press under the Buhari regime threaten to set Nigerian democracy back by decades. However, just like it was with every oppressive military administration of the past, this government will be outlasted by the media — because, as we have seen, the current targets of media oppression are on their crusade for the long haul.
Senegal: a conflict in the public space
Journalists have an important role to play in documenting and researching the causes of Senegal’s Casamance conflict, helping to bring political opponents together
Journalist Idrahima Gassama (left) of radio SudFM and his team transmit live on the day of the signing of a peace pact between Senegal’s government and separatist rebels to end decades of conflict in the southern Casamance region, 2004 Photo: SEYLLOU DIALLO / AFP
The democratic culture Senegal is so proud of dates from the 19th century when France, the colonising power, extended the scope of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) to the colonies and passed a law (1881) establishing freedom of the press. Multiparty politics and pluralism of the press were established, in particular from 1886 with the circulation of the newspapers Réveil du Sénégal (Awakening of Senegal) and Le Petit Sénégalais (The Little Senegalese). In post-colonial times, state monopoly of the media in the name of national construction and development became a widespread practice across the continent.
This was a period characterised by chronic institutional instability, a succession of coups and underdevelopment. In Senegal, banned opposition parties fought long and hard for the restoration of democracy, supported by an underground press. The 1980s were marked by the reinstatement of a full multiparty system under the government of Abdou Diouf in 1981 and the emergence at the end of the decade of a new independent press, mostly run by journalists trained at the Study Center Science et Technology de L’information (CESTI).
During this time, a “quasi-institutional backbone” of the Senegalese media space was created, which revolved around publications such as the Sud quotidien (South-daily Life), Walfadjri, the Cafard Libéré (the Liberated Cockroach), Témoin (Witness) and, later, Nouvel Horizon (New Horizon), among others. The 1990s saw the emergence of a dynamic, professional private press, equidistant from power and opposition. It earned the title of “independent press” by reflecting the daily experience of the country’s population and their socio-economic difficulties, as well as reflecting opposition views, which were censored by the state.
The 1990s marked a turning point in the definition of new challenges facing Senegalese democracy. Disputes linked to the presidential elections of 1988 and 1993, and the ensuing violent riots, established that there was a need to establish reliable and credible institutions capable of ensuring the transparency of the electoral process and of preventing post-electoral conflicts. The National Assembly adopted a consensus media code in 1996, as well as an electoral register viewed as reliable by the various political actors.
The High Council for Radio-Television (HCRT), which later became the National Audiovisual Regulation Council (CNRA), was established to ensure equal access for political parties to public audiovisual media, respect for moral values and the diversity of the nation’s socio-cultural components in the programming of the shows.
Today, Senegal has more than 20 daily newspapers and a few popular weeklies, which have dominated the weekly landscape for more than two decades. In the audiovisual sector, there are about 10 private television channels, 20 private radio stations and around 30 community radio stations, alongside the public service of Senegalese Radio-Television. It is against this backdrop that we examine the interaction between media, democracy, peace and security in order to assess the impact of journalists’ professional practices on the stability of the Senegalese state.
A rebellion has been raging in the Casamance region since 1982, led by the separatist Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC). Casamance is geographically separated from a large part of the rest of Senegal by Gambia, and sociologically by ethnic and religious differences. Before the conflict began, public debate around the south region was shaped by the perceived “contempt” of the predominantly Islamic north. From the capital, Dakar, to the groundnut basin, the north is dominated by the Wolof ethnic group, whose language, practices and “Islamo-Wolof” values were eventually embodied in the culture and functioning of the state and its institutions.
The Wolof culture attained the status of reference culture, creating frustration and sometimes violent reactions from other sections of the nation. Wolof-language media, and the audiovisual media in particular, have helped to legitimise Wolof hegemony by allowing only a small share of programming time to other languages and cultures.
State media trivialised the Casamance conflict as a simple jacquerie (popular uprising) or as the rowdiness of a few disaffected people without popular legitimacy. This monolithic treatment of the conflict fostered a feeling of exteriority and created a distance from public concerns. The crisis in the south was perceived as an epiphenomenon, occurring in a forlorn corner of Senegal. In addition, journalistic self-censorship helped to mask the political stakes and the scope of the crisis. However, the dominance of this view was challenged from 1994, with the liberalisation of the audiovisual space.
New media titles and several private stations emerged, followed by the country’s first multimedia groups, which aimed to penetrate the opinion segment of the media market. Sud-FM was the first Senegalese radio station to break the monopoly of Radio Sénégal. The independent press began to give visibility to the Caramance independence movement in the public sphere. The movement was organised around Father Augustin Diamacoune, a “charismatic leader”.
The state had been accused of being indifferent to the claims of a marginalised and culturally despised population and of refusing to talk with independence rebels. Now, with more coverage of the conflict in the new independent media, the state took a more proactive attitude towards the rebellion. It recognised its political dimension and agreed to start a negotiation process with the MFDC from 1991, which led to the Cacheu Agreements in Guinea-Bissau. Meanwhile, media coverage of MFDC attacks on state representatives and administrative buildings reinforced its stature as a movement, while highlighting the weakness of the state.
The demands of the independence movement moved closer to the centre of public discourse. Greater freedom of information offered a space for expression. Separatist movements use acts of terror to establish “symbiotic” relationships with the media, and so to broaden their audiences. Such events are tailor-made for journalists, who find “media events” in images of disaster, and use these to arouse curiosity and emotion in their audiences.
Some, indeed, have described this as an “evil pact” between media and terrorism. At any rate, the independent media had discovered a power which, if not autonomous, became the object of instrumentalisation. Both sides integrated media into their strategies. During the Casamance conflict, the socialist regime and that of the “Alternation” era (of democratic regime change) adopted different approaches to communication and the media.
Between 1982 and 2000, the socialist strategy alternated between silence and manipulation. In the latter mode, a new military communications unit was created, DIRPA, to legitimise the army. Initially it did so by organising seminars aimed at raising awareness of the concept of “sensitive information”. Journalists were also given guided tours of Casamance, which prevented them from independent reporting. Sometimes this approach was successful, helping to rehabilitate the image of the army. Senegal’s military intervention in Guinea-Bissau in May 1998, during an army mutiny led by General Ansoumana Mané against the regime of President Bernardo Nino Vieira, was justified, through the press, by the legal concerns regarding mutual defence agreements which existed between Dakar and Bissau.
The official line was that the intervention was aimed at restoring constitutional order in Guinea-Bissau. The media helped by ignoring the fact that the Guinea- Bissau government’s position had implications for the Casamance rebellion. The country bordered on Senegal and had long been a back-up base for fighters of the rebellion. In the same way, the years between 1995 and 1997 were marked by deadly assaults by the MFDC, resulting in the deaths of Senegalese troops, which animated nationalist sentiment. Most journalists adopted a warmongering tone, castigating the state’s “sluggishness” and calling for increased military commitment and an “end” to the rebellion.
The military’s version of events was widely publicised and led people to believe that the end of the conflict was near. But, as we have seen, in the early 1990s, media reports about the conflict were carried by new independent media. In addition, press releases and reports by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the African Human Rights Meeting (RADDHO) exposed the abuses committed by the belligerents, particularly the armed forces, damaging the image of the state.
The publicity given to the rebels’ attacks on public buildings and on state representatives (prefect, sub-prefects, teachers) caused terror in the population and cast doubt on the public authorities’ ability to protect people and property. Most observers will agree that from 2000, there were increasing clashes between government and the press regarding the Casamance conflict. The intimidation of journalists, arrests, suspensions and bans on broadcasting were more frequent. Paradoxically, this came at a time when the word “peace” was on everyone’s lips. The slightest skirmish or the slightest dissident opinion relayed by the media awakened memories an old electoral promise to resolve the conflict in Casamance within 100 days.
On 21 August, 2000, more than a hundred days after the election and change of government, Le Matin, a newspaper, ran a front-page article: ‘The rebels move freely in Ziguinchor’. The editor and his journalist were summoned to the Criminal Investigation Division (DIC) to account for their “dissemination of false news, attack on the morals of the army and the country’s populations and attack on the national security of the state”.
On 25 August, 2000, the president issued a press release stating that only the head of state, as head of the armed forces, could judge the advisability of defence and protection measures involving the army. The press release also commented that journalists had undermined the army through sensationalist reporting. Mamadou Talla, editor of Le Populaire, and a journalist were also summoned to the DIC on 12 December, 2000 for publishing articles that traced the origins of the Casamance conflict to ethnic rivalries.
At around that time, a radio interview with rebel leader Salif Sadio on Sud-FM was immediately banned and staff of the station arrested under an “emergency measure” taken by the minister of the interior. It can be argued that these clashes between the Senegalese state and the media resulted in less coverage of Casamance. The media have failed to cover it systematically since then. Causes have been caricatured and prejudices reinforced. The rebellion has been projected as someone else’s problem.
In addition, there was little or no academic research on the conflict until the 1990s. The beginning of the conflict and its root causes were poorly documented, and even essentially factual articles offered little prospect for contextualisation. Moreover, the conflict has endured for so long that reporters deeply involved in reporting the Casamance conflict have been replaced by a new generation for whom the conflict is much less important. Momar Coumba Diop and Mamadou Diouf, who edited a number of research works on the conflict, were pioneers in this area, but received very little media attention.
Their publications, which range from the Trajectoire d’un Etat (published in English as Senegal, Essays in Statecraft, 1993) to Senegal under Abdou Diouf, 1992, and Le Sénégal contemporain (Contemporary Senegal, 2002) and Sénégal: Les ethnies et la nation (Senegal: ethnic groups and the nation, 1998) by Makhtar Diouf, were followed by other academic research on Casamance. But while the conflict did become a centre of interest in academia and research, no bridges were built between this approach and that of the media.
“Capture and decryption” refers to the professional aptitude essential to the calling of the journalist, whose aim is to give readers access to the facts and discourses that structure the life of the nation. The media give the national discourse meaning while at the same time challenging it. This conception of journalism depends on training practitioners to participate in public life and to serve as links beween players in the public sphere.
This kind of journalism, sometimes described as complex journalism, is more necessary than ever in a context of conflict like the one of Casamance – which in itself is an example of complexity, with its multifaceted causes, diversity of actors, and visible or invisible interests. For example, the rebels present their region as “beautiful and rebellious”, but this narrative blurs other causes of the conflict, including economic marginalisation and the land issue. During the 1970s, the government expropriated land there on a large scale, which led many to join the fighters in the maquis.
Geopolitical issues at the sub-regional level, such as the relationship between Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, are also at stake. Then again, the underground character of the rebellion movements can make them difficult to identify. This invisibility can mean that media houses and journalists ignore the Casamance issue, or take shortcuts. Currently, they are mostly content with reports on robberies and other acts of violence: these are “news stories”. When it is discussed, Casamance is presented as a conflict of identity. However, the independent media seldom simply adopt the official point of view of “non-negotiability of independence”.
After decades of conflict, there is still little sign of any political solution to the Casamance question. The state sometimes adopts repressive measures against the press, or censors particular works. Mostly the subject is surrounded by deep silence. Nevertheless, there are some things which the media can do to contribute to real peace. The causes of the Casamance conflict need to be systematically researched and documented.
Journalism is a form of mediation, and equidistant information processing helps to bring political opponents together. An important part of this involves ensuring that marginalised voices are heard This approach opens the public space to all statements, even those which shock or collide. Out of this friction the truth arises, and the beat of peaceful hearts.
Peace journalism: West Africa
Conflict-sensitive journalism must ensure inclusive and impartial coverage, with the media fulfilling a role as “appeasers”
A Malian journalist takes part in a march in Bamako in memory of radio journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon from Radio France Internationale who were in killed in Kidal after being kidnapped, 2013 Photo: STR / AFP
The media today have a considerable influence in society. They shape the values of individuals, and therefore have a significant, though indirect, impact on all society. The role that “hate media” played in the Rwandan massacre has become a textbook case of the harmful role the media can play in the emergence or exacerbation of conflicts. Similarly, the media played a role in exacerbating violence in Côte d’Ivoire in 2002 and during the post-electoral crisis of 2010. The partial and partisan treatment of information, disinformation and propaganda in situations as delicate as conflicts and political crises contribute greatly to poisoning the social climate and radicalising viewpoints. The media are not neutral vectors of information; in some situations they may be responsible for the difference between peace and war. As Bernard Dagenais (1993: 57) pointed out, “in times of crisis, the media are full actors”. Or as Douglas Kellner (1990) put it, the “enslavement of the media” to established powers fuels democratic crisis, exacerbates conflicts and, by extension, a disrespect for human rights.
The majority of researchers who have examined the role of the media in time of crisis conclude that the media, although omnipotent, are doing a poor job: they have no historical insight, they discard any in-depth analysis of the challenges of crisis, they speak on behalf of the authorities and put more emphasis on the results than the causes of conflicts. However, this radical position is qualified by the reflection that the media can also be used for the better. The media are “double-edged tools”, to use the expression of Canadian journalist Ross Howard. If political crisis is a cyclical element in some West African countries, and if the media are the agents of social communication through which a crisis becomes public, then the media, peace and human rights relationship becomes a key factor in the fight for democracy. Crisis situations (real or anticipated) provide privileged moments to study the interdependence of media institutions with the societies in which they operate. In an era marked by globalisation and technological progress, the role of the media and information professionals in peace-building processes has become central, especially in covering political conflicts.
From this point of view, peace journalism or conflict-sensitive journalism is a prerequisite for world stability. But what does the expression “peace journalism” or “conflict sensitive journalism” mean? Peace journalism was launched in the 1970s by the Norwegian political scientist Johan Galtung. It gained wider interest and support from professional journalists in developed and developing countries in the 1990s, as well as attracting civil society activists, and academic researchers interested in dealing with conflicts and crises in the media. It offers a set of plans, evaluation criteria and practical options to media professionals that can be used to develop critical analysis of war journalism, all derived from, or at least attentive to, proposals on conflict, violence and peace. The aim of peace journalism is to place events relating to conflicts in a broad and fair context, that does not cater to partisan, political and economic interests. It seeks the causes of conflicts and solutions in each camp; it gives the floor to all parties involved; it focuses on the conflict rather than the opposing parties; it is cognisant that its coverage of conflict can have repercussions; and it aims to establish a moderate discourse focused on non-violence.
Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, in their book Journalisme de paix. Qu’est-ce que c’est ? Et comment l’exercer? (Peace Journalism. What is it? And how to exercise it?), distinguish between journalism of peace and journalism of war. They maintain that the daily practices of war journalism incite, favour, and stir up social conflicts. On the other hand, peace journalism organises its skills around the preservation or consolidation of peace. In a 2010 book, Reports on Conflicts: New Directions in Peace Journalism, Jake Lynch and Johan Galtung present case studies of media coverage in Korea, Yugoslavia and during the Gulf War. These case studies laid the groundwork for a peace journalism that is applicable to many conflicts. Its fundamental principle is that media and information professionals need to underline the common points between parties to the conflict, rather than focusing exclusively on the differences. That is, tell the story from all sides. But this approach also raises questions about whether it is possible to implement it in accordance with the professional rules which govern the practice of journalism.
In the processing of news, should peace journalism be objective and impartial? Defenders of peace journalism argue that journalists cannot be neutral if their goal is to build social stability and promote peace. From this point of view, objectivity is compromised by the desire to ensure a social stability. Peace journalism, they claim, is prone to “punch” when it criticises, while omitting controversial facts or difficult issues in conflict. “The media can be an ‘instrument’ of conflict resolution when the information they present is reliable, respect human rights, and represent various viewpoints,” argues Ross Howard, whose two books, An operational Framework for Media and Peace (2002) and Conflict-Sensitive Journalism ( 2003), have been influential. Peace journalism can advocate for accountability and expose embezzlement. It can help members of society to make informed choices, which is the forerunner of democratic governance, he argues. From this perspective, “peace journalism” can have the following positive functions:
• Constitute a means of communication between the protagonists;
• Correct the misperceptions of personalities and lead experts to explain themselves clearly;
• Show a more human aspect of the other;
• Highlight the human dimension of the conflict by associating names and voices with it and providing personal accounts;
• Provide an outlet for listeners, readers, viewers but also the protagonists. Get them to consider the problem in a different way or give them the opportunity to learn from solutions found elsewhere;
• Generate solutions. Peace building includes all activities that help overcome organised violence and maintain peace.
The general aim of peace building through peace journalism is therefore to prevent the eruption of violence in conflict, or to transform armed conflict or crisis in the long term into peaceful and constructive forms of dispute resolution. Peace building, through journalism that promotes peace, could appear in three structuring phases of crisis or conflict situations:
1. Prevention to avoid the escalation of violence before the crisis or the conflict;
2. Conflict management or restoration of peace to put an end to violence and lead to a peace treaty (the media and journalists are mediators and moderators);
3. The consolidation of peace to stabilise it after conflict or war.
Media that participate in war discourse play a considerable role in spreading hawkish attitudes, and thereby help to underwrite a public view that is favourable to war. In this mode, media produce symbolic warrior identities that engage members of the public as actors engaged in war. An enemy is presented as a collective threat, a collective identity to be destroyed. This can be the case with respect to bearers of the same nationality, as is the case in civil wars. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, US and British war-supporting media accentuated the delegitimisation of the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. Following the 9/11 attacks in the US, some politicians presented hostilities against Al-Qaeda as legitimate, with their attacks seen as a declaration of war. Media were an integral part of the war apparatus, with the aim of legitimising the American intervention in Iraq. So, a belligerent state was instituted as an actor legitimately wielding violence, and the adversary is demonised. The case of Radio Television Libre de Milles Collines (RTLM) in Rwanda is a much-quoted example of “hate media”.
This private radio station helped to create a climate of terror among the population that culminated in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. RTLM served to legitimise the massacres of Tutsi and Hutu opponents, directly incited the massacres and provided practical information to the perpetrators of the genocide to facilitate the killings. According to Marie- Soleil Frère, hate propaganda reinvents history, manipulates facts, and uses victimisation, dehumanisation and animalisation of the Other. Contrary to such a stance, peace journalism does not hold a hawkish discourse, not in designating an enemy to kill, or in legitimising conflicts, but in acting upstream to avoid a risk system often resulting from the combination of four factors highlighted by Philippe Hugon (2006; 35):
• Structural: linked to underdevelopment, characterised by the vulnerability and exposure to risk of populations with low resilience due to insufficient availability, market failures, absence of rights and capacities or dysfunctions in the allocation of resources;
• Cyclical, exogenous and endogenous shocks: linked to sudden and unexpected events leading to a strong disturbance of the system and to an unregulated propagation;
• At an institutional and political level: characterised by absences or shortcomings in prevention (monitoring cells, alert systems) and regulation, by instrumentalisation (unemployed young people, religious, politics, or ethnicity);
• Informational: the paroxysmal crisis always responds to a lack of information and to propaganda carried by the political powers and the media.
During wartime, the media, from a “peace journalism” perspective, ensure minimal expression in public space of the expression of symbolic identities and political representations. They ensure the sustainability of the commitments that underpin us, to the extent that, in wartime, the expression of identities is stronger because war is a time of exacerbation of political cleavages and symbolic identities. The media construct, in a way, the symbolic permanence of the institutional fact, at a time when political institutions and sociability are in crisis and, in a way, in a waking state. Communication, whether through the media or through institutional actors, consists during the war of pursuing the representation of the country and the state and, thus, in perpetuating the situation of political and social secularity which allows inhabitants of a country, even in a state of suspension of the institutional relations, to recognise themselves in their common identity and to recognise powers and institutions. The media ensure a permanent confrontation between the realities of the war. Doing so, they allow the symbolic appropriation of the war by members of the public, and, consequently, the confrontation of their effective practices of sociability with the events which threaten their collective identity.
In this sense, the media ensure the symbolic presence of war in public space, they prevent the state, the country, the game of identities, from foreclosing war, or to be foreclosed from it, by obliging us, by its presence in the media, to take a position in relation to it and to institute our political identities in relation to the war. Finally, the media build the memory of the war as it unfolds: they have a function of recording events, both for the memories of those who experience them, and who, thus, will keep their memory after they are finished, and for those who do not know them, but who will be the depositories of this memory in the political conscience of their identity. What emerges from these positions is that conflict-sensitive journalism must ensure inclusive and impartial coverage of information. In this way, the media and journalists do not appear only as mere informants or observers of the crisis or conflict situation, but also and above all as “appeasers”. This role of appeaser is all the more remarkable since the latter must not lean towards one or the other of the parties of the conflict, but must contribute to bringing calm by reporting facts without comment.
In Mali, Radio Daande Douentza has made a large contribution to the transformation of a conflict between breeders and farmers in the Timbuktu region. Conflict-sensitive journalism was illustrated through journalistic production on three levels. Initially, the station reported incidents between breeders and cultivators to allow the regional administration to react quickly; then it allowed farmers to announce on the radio when they had finished harvesting. The herdsmen who listened to the radio thus knew when they could cross the fields without damaging them, and therefore in complete safety. Finally, a series of programmes was repeatedly broadcast reminding breeders and farmers of the collaboration that had always existed between the two groups. Here, media served as a link between conflictual parties. In addition, they were able to make the link between the community and the central government or with other actors. By creating a dynamic of exchange, the media facilitated interactions between the different actors. The post-crisis period is always a period of transition. Discourses and communication strategies can be used to prepare for the post-war period, by fair representations of the actors, thus organising, on the symbolic level, a real implementation of political power and institutions.
The media represent an international public space: they stage a kind of diplomatic activity which can help to organise the powers and political actors of the post-war period. By reporting on the negotiations and the preparation of peace, they reveal the reformulation of the political identities restructured during the conflict and provide the instruments which allow the assessment of the balance of powers born during the war. This was the logic behind the Talking Drum Studio radio programme Leh wi mec salone (Let’s build Sierra Leone) founded in 2000. Hosted by veterans from opposing factions, it was initially intended to encourage combatants to return to civilian life. In addition, the peace media approach can also articulate an internal public space dominated by local actors and political identities. By doing so, they help to mediate these elements with institutional strategies and practices in international public space. In other words, in this phase the media represent internal political identities to the external world, which includes other countries, mediators of the international community, and actors of stakeholder organisations. This approach is sometimes said to constitute a kind of appeasement, and it can be precarious. Specifically, it means implementing a journalistic practice capable of reconciling the parties involved in the conflict or crisis.
The main objective is to contribute to the (re) construction of thoughts, visions and hearts that have been suppressed, or hidden. Peace journalism aims to have a positive impact on conflicts and to contribute to their prevention, or resolution. It can be a difficult concept to delimit. Mainly, the challenge is to identify the necessary skills and the criteria of a journalistic practice encouraging peace. In Galtung’s terms, these criteria can be understood as the opposite of journalistic work that encourages violence against those who promote peace. The major challenge for journalism in the West African zone is to advocate, through professional practices, a real model of information processing that corresponds to that of peace media and “peace journalism” while guaranteeing the independence of the media in times of crisis or in conflict zones. By contributing to sensitive information processing in conflict situations, the media can begin to provide solutions to the challenges of peace.
Ethiopia: media in transition
The current media system in Ethiopia has yet to yield the desired results of promoting diversity, openness, responsiveness and autonomy
A man points to the Ethiopian newspaper, The Reporter, depicting portraits of the deceased Ahmara president Ambachew Mekonnen and chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Forces, General Seare Mekonnen, June 2019 Photo: EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP
Ethiopian society has been in transition for more than a quarter of a century and so have the country’s media and their practitioners. Having a legacy of rule by monocracies and autocracy before 1991, the past three decades were broadly characterised by the authoritarian rule of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Now, the country is in a period of political transition, the form and substance of which are yet to be seen, and the stakes have never been higher. Aspiring to hold a hegemonic grip on society, leaders of successive regimes increasingly believed that the media should play an instrumental role in their designs. The most recent regime declared a transitional charter in June 1991, which lifted sanctions on freedom of speech, removed prior censorship, and outlawed the practice of “administrative” censorship of the press. The charter led to a proliferation of the printed press in the early 1990s in the form of periodical magazines and newspapers, although the broadcast sector remained the exclusive domain of the state up until very recently.
However, in the decades that followed, whether in the public sphere or the private media, the media landscape in Ethiopia’s political transition was defined by the adversarial relationship between the state and the nascent private press. As part of this, the state continued to see the public media as an instrument of management. Members of the Ethiopian elite see members of the public as indifferent and passive recipients of information in the form of education and entertainment, as well as social mobilisation, all in pursuit of a defined objective. If power is about seeing reality in order to change it, the Ethiopian media industry has a history of complicity with the government of the day, as an echo chamber to its narratives. This continues to be the case, only with new slogans. A world of information that is differentiated, (possibly) contradictory and which involves changing interests is discouraged; the media are not seen as an intermediary in participatory democracy. Many of the country’s journalists agree with this paternalistic view of power, thus cheerleading the ruling elite’s definitions of national security and national interest.
Many find it convenient to accept this, and their complicity has been important in maintaining power. Since the charter, the government’s approach has been to subdue the media under the guise of maintaining “public order” and asserting “national security”. The struggle between these two ideas of the media – as an instrument of state control on the one hand (agent of stability), and as a check on the state’s exercise of power and representative of the public on the other (agent of change) – continues to this day. Ethiopia’s Constitution (Article 29) favours the latter approach. It guarantees comprehensive freedoms by banning prior censorship and protecting the freedoms of information and expression. Sub-article two of Article 29 says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference”. Article 29 criminalises those who would constrain the exercise of this freedom, declaring, in sub-article seven: “Any citizen who violates any legal limitations on the exercise of these rights may be held liable under the law”. The Constitution establishes that the state cannot write laws in violation of these rights in the absence of a legislative body, and even with such authority, it cannot do so as it pleases.
The grounds for limitations are narrowly defined. Limitations on the fundamental freedoms must “protect the well-being of the youth, the honour and reputation of individuals”. The Constitution also outlaws “propaganda for war as well as [the] public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity”. If these constitutionally enshrined freedoms have been eroded in recent years, both in legal and institutional ways, the blame lies with legislators. As leaders of the ruling party developed an ever more sophisticated taste for ideological hegemony, they wrote laws governing many aspects of life in Ethiopia. Of note was the erosion of these freedoms when legislators voted in favour of the revised Penal Code, in 2005, which contains elements that are a regrettable regression from the spirit of the Constitution. So the Constitution narrowly constrains the state’s ability to curb freedom of speech and the press and sets a minimum standard for the protection of human dignity. On the other hand, it broadens the scope of possible limitations in the criminal code, which includes a clause referring to “the protection of collective security and violations of any rights protected by the law”.
Another provision of the Penal Code (Article 613, sub-article one) has earned Ethiopia a rare place in the world for its resurrection of an archaic concept of law many countries are now only willing to preserve in their archives. For many across the world, the phrase “seditious libel” must sound antique. In Ethiopia, however, content published might be true, but if it is deemed to be libel and malicious [by a court], its publisher faces criminal conviction. This provision was quietly introduced into the penal code by proponents of the views of Sir William Blackstone, a British 18th century legal scholar who established that “truth is not a defence, and the judge alone decides whether the publication was seditious”. The burden of proof otherwise is with the accused. These constitutionally guaranteed rights have been further eroded by subsequent laws, putting the media as agents of change on the retreat. There have been no less than 33 proclamations of various kinds, all of which have yet to pass a legal test on whether they comply with the Constitution. The media’s rightful place in Ethiopian society should be shaped by clarity as regards its purpose and mission.
Editors, journalists and commentators need to understand the evolving values, norms and principles of the society they serve. They must define their mission in ways that are not shaped by fear of power or by vested interests. In transitional societies, where the old has not been phased out entirely, and the new has yet to be born, the media’s responsibilities are to transform. It ought to be up to the media themselves to guard their expressive space against hegemonic incursions of power. It is not the business of the media to get into bed with any of these actors, regardless of the holiness of the cause professed or the attractiveness of the veil under which it is hidden – whether in the form of patriotism, nationalism or the many other “isms” that pop up periodically. Regrettably, in a landscape where power plays a significant interventive role, the media churn out partisan political commentaries rather than dispassionate information, news and analysis. These instrumentalist and, in some cases, militant media help to create a public that is loyal to ideologies that may be at variance with a common good. At present, the most politically active segments of Ethiopian society are avid consumers of information, while the majority remains passive and disenfranchised.
The media should instead see their mission as being rooted in public opinion. They need to recognise the important roles non-state actors can play in society. They can benefit themselves and their audiences at the same time, as long as they remain professional in their core mission, which is to help the public broaden their range of choices. This requires accuracy, context, analysis and background. Professionalism in the media industry, as with many other disciplines, has limits. Practitioners need to ensure their own financial viability while carving out an expressive space that is free from state and other intrusion. They cannot thrive as long as they remain dependent on predatory hands. They ought to be enabling legal and ethical frameworks and in so doing ensuring their own credibility, which further supports their continued existence and provides protection whenever they come under attack. Legal and ethical instruments are therefore also needed to keep the media on their toes so that they remain faithful to their core mission. Any attempts to mould any media platform in terms that are contrary to the realities of society, and which make the media subservient to hegemonic messages, are a betrayal of the spirit of the Constitution.
Ethiopian society is diverse, and its media should reflect that. Stifling dissent in a diverse society only leads to despotism and the tyranny of the majority. A media corps willing to embed itself with the powers that be, and to carry out their wishes, cannot be faithful to the public and quickly loses credibility. On the other hand, independent, professional and competent media need the protection of an independent judiciary. It is crucial that Ethiopia’s media industry institutionalises itself, first agreeing on the model it wants to emulate. The current media landscape is, no doubt, a product of a social and political history characterised by a high degree of polarisation between various groups of society. For many, “loyal” bias in favour of a partisan agenda is more important than commitment to shared professional values. The media industry and its active players are not immune to the demands of collectivist political cultures, but they should see themselves as the champions of different, even polarised views.
Press freedom: the fiercest battle
How South African private media played a pivotal role in mobilising civil society to expose a corrupt president and his cronies
A protester wearing chains and a gas mask rallies outside the SABC to protest alleged bias and censorship before key municipal elections, 2016 Photo: John Wessels / AFP
What is it to be an “African journalist”? Working in African countries can mean operating in challenging conditions, with limited resources and sometimes restrictive political environments. African media have been shaped by their histories – as colonial, revolutionary or post-independence presses, as state broadcasters, as community or development projects. To make this possible in South Africa, for example, public institutions were captured through aggressive “cadre deployment” practices, a policy of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that has seen many key technocratic and managerial positions in the civil service and the state-owned enterprises going to political cronies within the ruling party, and which has reportedly helped to render key law-enforcement agencies impotent. Although they might have pursued their personal interests with the straightforwardness of a medieval court, Zuma and his cronies understood the importance of information in a modern democracy. Control over mass media was central in their quest for unchecked power.
With the ANC in charge of virtually all the relevant governing bodies, elections were the biggest threat to their hegemony, both in the national institutions and within the ruling party. It must therefore have seemed of capital importance to the Zuma faction within the ANC to keep the masses oblivious to their corrupt practices. The most obvious vehicle for any government to achieve this would be the public broadcaster, which is is often under (in)direct state control and which usually enjoys a large audience in the population. The latter is particularly true in South Africa, a highly unequal society where millions have no access to the internet or other sources of information, and instead have to rely on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Some form of political control over public broadcasters is not a serious issue in countries where the relative independence and stability of other institutions, including media authorities and privately-owned media operations, helps to prevent party-political or partisan broadcasting.
But it is probably true to say that the SABC, which was started by the apartheid regime, has never been an example of independence from government interference. “In South Africa, 22 million people have the SABC as their only source of news,” veteran radio journalist Foeta Krige told Africa in Fact. “If a political party can control the SABC, they control what’s going out to a huge part of the electorate.” And it was here that one of the fiercest battles for media freedom of that period happened. It was fought by the SABC 8, a group of journalists who in May 2016 refused to follow orders to leave violent anti-government protests out of the daily news bulletins. Krige was one of them. As punishment for standing up to Zuma’s enforcers, the SABC 8 were fired and threatened for months by faceless thugs who echoed the government’s discourse on critics. As part of this, they claimed that SABC 8 whites were agents of imperialism and that their black and Indian colleagues were useful idiots or despicable déclassé sell-outs.
Through the justice system and the processes of public participation in parliament, and by mobilising public opinion, the SABC 8 eventually regained their jobs, got the censorship orders revoked and exposed the rot at the institution. Their actions initiated the fall of one of the most toxic characters of the Zuma cohort: former SABC boss and censor-in-chief Hlaudi Motsoeneng. But the group’s victory was achieved at great personal cost to the group. One of its members, Suna Venter, was threatened and spied on. Her apartment was broken into. The tyres of her car were slashed and the brake cables of the vehicle cut. She was shot at twice while driving. On one occasion, she was taken out of her bed at night, waking up hours later tied to a tree on a Johannesburg hilltop. She died in June 2017, reportedly as a result of the stress of the campaign of threats and violence against her. Zuma’s exploitation of the media was not limited to the public broadcaster. Using public money, his administration facilitated the launch of The New Age newspaper and news channel ANN7, two private outlets that aimed to feed their audiences with pro-government propaganda.
This also benefitted their owners – the infamous Gupta brothers who massively enriched themselves and some Zuma family members at the expense of the South African taxpayer (see Italics below). More subtle were the Zuma government’s manoeuvres to manipulate journalists into helping to discredit honest officials who refused to be intimidated or bought off. In 2014, journalists at the Sunday Times were fed false information about a unit within the South African Revenue Service (SARS) that was supposedly operating outside the law. This narrative, which was apparently initiated within the Zuma camp, was legitimised and propelled by the Sunday Times in several front-page stories. It discredited some of the country’s most capable public servants and permitted the government to act against a legitimate anti-tax evasion unit that threatened illicit businesses belonging to the president’s cronies. The information was subsequently revealed to have been a hoax and the “rogue unit” saga succeeded in casting doubts on the credibility of investigative media.
The costs of the Zuma years
State capture has seen South Africa subjected to gigantic costs to the national economy and the country’s reputation. No final figure is available, and perhaps never will be, of the direct economic costs, but some of the indications are telling. The phenomenon of state capture began with former President Thabo Mbeki’s administration in the mid-1990s, when it was introduced as the ANC’s official policy of “cadre deployment”, or the placing of politically connected individuals in key posts. Over time, the approach came to be associated with, and then rebranded as “radical economic transformation” by Jacob Zuma’s supporters within the ruling party. Zuma’s first term as president began in 2008, and his presidency was terminated at the end of 2017, when he narrowly lost a leadership contest within the ANC to current incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa.
In 2007, the year before Zuma took power, the country had a R9.5 billion surplus; in last year’s budget, the country had a debt of R246 billion, according to a March 2019 report by South African news outlet biznews.com. In December 2015, after Zuma suddenly fired finance minister Nhlanhla Nene some R378 billion was wiped off Johannesburg Stock Exchange shares, taking with it some 148,000 jobs. In March 2017, South African bonds and listed companies lost R506 billion when Zuma summarily fired two other finance ministers, Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas, according to the same report. Between 2012 and 2017, foreign direct investment in the country declined by 41%, from $4.5 billion to $1.3 billion. Investors were reluctant to commit to the country because of an “underperforming commodity sector and political uncertainty”, according to the World Investment Report 2018.
According to an October 2018 report by Bureau of Economic Research, South Africa’s GDP in that year had declined by between 10 and 30% below projections since 2008, and some 500,000 to 2.5 million jobs had not been created. Meanwhile, state-owned enterprises have been struggling to survive in the post-Zuma years. The national power utility, Eskom, declared the world’s best power utility in 2003, currently has a debt of an estimated R500 billion – a figure so large that commentators, including members of the government, say it may threaten the economy. The national airline is in business rescue after decades of government bailouts, while Denel, an arms manufacturer, and Prasa, the national railroad agency are in fiscal intensive care. The Zondo Commission, on state capture, which began its work in August 2018, has yet to conclude. In July last year, Gordhan, since appointed public enterprises minister, revealed that some 3,000 forensic reports had been compiled on the SOEs since 2017 when the indications of the true extent of state capture first emerged.
Zuma’s association with the Guptas appears to have allowed the Indian-born businessmen influence over government policy and appointments, and given them access to large, corruption-driven lucrative government tenders. Gordhan is reported to have said that the Guptas may have succeeded in stealing as much as R50 billion from the state. They have fled the country, with reports suggesting that they are in Dubai, with which the South African state is reported to be negotiating an extradition treaty. Zuma denies any responsibility for the actions of the Guptas, although he has also defended them as “friends”, or for the dramatic decline in the country’s economy under his watch, accusing critics of mounting a political campaign against him. Meanwhile, calculating the direct costs of Zuma’ presidency to the country can be difficult, given that such budget items are often well hidden in government accounts.
However, according to a 2012 report by Gareth van Onselen on Politicsweb, a South African news outlet, in 2012 Zuma’s presidency – including his salary, accommodation, support for his wives and the costs of an army medical unit in permanent attendance – were about R1.5 billion annually. That figure, which van Onselen regarded as conservative, was equivalent to about 31,275 jobs, calculated at the national average salary of that year of R47,964, according to figures by the School of Economic and Business Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Several testimonies point to the hand of the secret services behind the scheme to discredit the SARS unit. Although they have no definitive proof, Krige and his SABC 8 colleagues suspect state intelligence was also behind the anonymous threats and attacks on them. The use of the security agencies to interfere with the media is not new in post-apartheid South Africa. One of its finest investigative journalists, amaBhungane’s Sam Sole, was told in 2009 “by people from within the intelligence community” that the secret service was recording his phone calls. “We laid a complaint with the Inspector General of Intelligence, but they took a couple of years to get back to us,” Sole tells Africa in Fact. “They didn’t even say if we were monitored or not. All they said was: ‘we did an investigation and nothing illegal was done’.” The evidence he was looking for emerged in 2015, when Zuma filed court papers to oppose the official opposition’s bid to have criminal charges against him reinstated in a matter relating to the 1990s arms scandal, during which Zuma was reported to have been paid by a foreign arms company to represent its interests.
Attached to his lawyer’s affidavit were transcripts of conversations Sole had with a senior prosecutor while the journalist was working on an investigation. Zuma’s team said the evidence showed that the senior prosecutor’s conversation with Sole supported their claim that the charges against the applicant had been orchestrated by his political rivals. “We used that to launch a challenge to the surveillance legislation [under which he was spied on],” Sole recalls. On 16 September, 2019 a ruling of the High Court in Johannesburg declared sections of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act (Rica) unconstitutional, arguing that it gave excessive powers to spymasters to the detriment of citizens’ privacy, as well as compromising the right of journalists to keep their sources confidential. However, Sole’s experience of being bugged contributed to the success of one of the greatest feats in the history of South African journalism. In early 2017, anonymous whistle-blowers sent South African online publication Daily Maverick what appeared to be a trove of e-mails and documents from the command centre of the Gupta business empire.
“When we handled the Guptaleaks we were extremely careful not to let anybody know what we had, and what we were doing,” Sole recounts. Instead of securing a huge scoop by keeping the information for his paper, Daily Maverick’s editor-in-chief Branko Brkic “immediately” contacted his colleagues at amaBunghane to seek assistance. He had previously worked with them and knew about their “expertise” in investigating corruption in general and the Gupta’s dirty businesses in particular. “I’d have betrayed South Africa’s future if I’d seen it as an opportunity for myself,” Brkic told Africa in Fact. Sole praises Brkic’s “very mature and responsible” decision to invite them to work together when the Daily Maverick realised “they didn’t have the capacity to deal with something this big on their own”. Brkic deems the work that followed “a testimony of a collaboration well done”. As South Africans would find out later, the impressive cache of secrets Daily Maverick received revealed the extent of the Gupta family’s influence over the government and how they were using it to obtain contracts with state companies.
Conscious of how damaging the information was for some of the most powerful people in the country, Brkic, Sole, his fellow amaBhungane journalist Stefaans Brummer and the small group of people who had access to the files only discussed the matter face to face and worked on computers not connected to the internet. “If they had prior knowledge, we would have been vulnerable to search and seizure and so on,” Sole points out. “So that experience with surveillance was important in making us very careful.” By being “very careful” Sole and his colleagues were also protecting the whistle-blowers. The Daily Maverick and amaBhungane only started publishing the so-called Guptaleaks months after they received the material. “It took us quite a while to get going, because we first had to essentially raise money to take the whistle-blowers to safety,” Sole says about the “discreet” process involving several sectors of society that made their relocation abroad possible. With South African state institutions such as the National Prosecution Authority (NPA), the Hawks, an elite investigation unit, and parliament under Zuma’s iron grip, it was the private media that took on the task of keeping those in power accountable.
The Guptaleaks and other media investigations played a vital role in fostering the civic mobilisation against Zuma that forced many, even within the ANC, to speak out against the president’s abuses. This process eventually led to the ANC recalling Zuma before the end of his term following his camp’s defeat at the party’s elective conference. It might be said that independent journalism has not influenced the political course of other African countries on the scale it has done in South Africa in recent times. Apart from a better-established private media and a stronger civil society, South African journalists had in their favour an independent judiciary capable of ruling against the government. The substantial impact journalistic investigations had in putting an end to Zuma’s corrupt administration owed a great deal to the culture of dissent within the ANC, whose way of electing its leaders ultimately prevented the institution of a potentially autocratic Zuma dynasty in power. “In other countries the presidency would have had a much more handson control over other institutions,” notes Daily Maverick’s Brkic. Indeed, in African countries where authoritarianism holds sway, journalists have been convicted and jailed by subservient judges.
In Angola, for instance, investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais was handed a six-month suspended jail sentence in 2015 for criticising politicians who supported the regime. De Morais’s persecution was pugnaciously contested by the country’s thriving civil society. Yet despite the magnitude of the scandal he revealed, then-President Eduardo dos Santos remained the unchallenged leader of the ruling MPLA until he stepped down when he chose to retire in 2017, after 38 years in power. Similar situations have been reported in recent years in countries such as Zimbabwe and Cameroon, where journalists have been threatened, attacked, arrested and charged for criticising their authoritarian governments or informing about their abuses. Sadly, such events are emblematic of the state of things in many African countries. In the absence of effective mechanisms to enforce democratic laws and processes, politics is often determined by force, and governments are able the abuse state security structures and resources with impunity.
But as Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, co-founder of Botwana’s INK Center for Investigative Journalism, pointed out in a 2018 article, examples of valuable investigative work are abundant in the rest of Africa, with new media outlets, often constituted as non-profit organisations and funded by individual and international donors, increasingly setting the agenda. In 2018 alone the Global Investigative Journalism Network identified 10 outstanding investigative stories produced by African journalists – including revelations of human rights abuses, corruption, information data breaches, sexual violence and gross state negligence in Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Cameroon and Kenya among other countries.