The pen is still a mighty sword

2012-04-21 10:45

Those who make sweeping generalisations about the quality of our journalism should take a look at this year’s winners of the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Reporting.

The top eight or 10 of the 43 entries for the country’s biggest journalism award are evidence that the best of our journalism is truly among the best in the world.

I was a judge of last year’s Shining Light Award, given at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, and where the 2010 Taco Kuiper winner was a finalist.

Our shortlist is as good as the international one. There are at least half a dozen entries for the Taco Kuiper Award which would compete favourably on the international list.

Taco Kuiper was a South African publisher who set up the Valley Trust and endowed this award to recognise “outstanding examples of investigative reporting”. This was the sixth annual award, and it is run by the Wits Journalism department.

The work put before the panel of judges (including two international judges) was ­well-researched, hard-hitting, courageous, and of great public interest. It was clear as we went through it that our investigative reporters have been making an inestimable contribution to the realisation of the constitutional goals of transparency and accountability, and thus to the health of our democracy.

This shines through in their determination to shine light in dark spaces, to make public officials account for their actions and decisions and to highlight complex social problems.

Sometimes journalists might feel there is no point to what they do, that exposés are published one after the other without apparent end and without obvious effect.

But the stories in this competition had major effects: they led to the resignation of a Cabinet minister; the firing of a deputy minister; the disciplining of a member of Parliament; an official investigation of a youth leader, as well as a presidential spokesperson; the firing of a hospital chief executive; the suspension of a city traffic chief; the removal of a city fire chief; and a R1.5-million fine for a company breaking labour legislation?– a formidable record of effectiveness.

The winner was the Sunday Times team of Mzilikazi wa Afrika, Rob Rose and Stephan Hofstatter for their splash, Mac’s Dodgy Millions. “When one takes on a man like Mac Maharaj, one has to have a
cast-iron case,” the judges said.

“That is not easy when it is a case which stymied the Scorpions. The Sunday Times team spent months pursuing it, and found the smoking gun: a consultancy agreement that set out how money would flow from a company bidding for a major tender with Maharaj’s department to his wife. They had dates, amounts and bank account numbers – the detail that turns a good investigation into a great one.”

The runner-up was the Daily Dispatch of East London for two investigations: one into a major story about newborns at Eastern Cape hospitals dying of infections and another in which they visited 17 mortuaries across the province to document despicable conditions.

The journalists involved were Michael Kimberley, Msindisi Fengu, Lindile Sifile and photographer Mark Andrews.

“Our media is sometimes criticised for neglecting those other than the urban elite or being only interested in sensation and profit; here the newspaper showed itself to be a strong and concrete ally of local citizens in their fight for decent health and social services,” the judges said.

Another piece which received a special mention was “The Great Chicken Exposé” by Khanyi Ndabeni of The Herald in Port Elizabeth. This intrepid reporter went to work at a food factory – she even paid a bribe to a labour broker to get the job?– and exposed appalling working and health conditions. Getting it first-hand meant that the evidence was irrefutable. “It was courageous journalism of the first order?.?.?. we do not have enough of this powerful and impactful first-hand reportage,” the judges said.

Also among the finalists were the Mail & Guardian for an account of various bribes paid to senior politicians of the Northern Cape, most notably ANC chair John Block; Carte Blanche for their treatment of the John Block story, and a City Press team for their exposé of Julius Malema’s family trust, which give the first details of the sources of his otherwise inexplicable wealth.

Those who denigrate our journalism, who loosely call it shoddy, need to see this work. South Africans need to celebrate it, and take heed of what we will lose if we allow secrecy bills and statutory media tribunals to impede such work, and if we allow our journalism to be mocked, attacked and restricted by those who are made uncomfortable by it.

» This is an edited version of the remarks by Professor Anton Harber at the Taco Kuiper Award ceremony 

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