On e.tv's ethics

2010-01-27 00:00

IT never rains but pours for some members of the news team at free-to-air broadcaster e.tv in Johannesburg.

The broadcaster aired interviews with two masked men who told of planned crimes during the forthcoming Soccer World Cup.

Members of eNews, news editor Ben Said and reporter Mpho Lakaje, were subpoenaed to give the police their unedited footage, names and contact details of the men they had interviewed and information about firearms shown in the programme.

Worse still, a source who had led the free-to-air broadcaster to the two men, Lucky Phungula, committed suicide recently, citing pressure emanating from the interviews.

All hell broke loose, with the government being accused of a full-scale attack on eNews and the rest of the media.

Those opposed to the subpoenas have said the government’s attempt to force e.tv to identify criminals interviewed on air amounted to an attempt to muzzle the media.

The African National Congress went into overdrive, saying if e.tv fails to co-operate with the police and subpoenas to identify the two, “they cannot be different from these criminals themselves”. The police insist that e.tv owes it to the country to hand over the criminals to the police.

Some quarters have argued that if the ANC is truly concerned about South Africa’s international image ahead of the World Cup, now is not the time to launch a full-scale assault on South Africa’s journalists.

The South African Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has also come out with its guns blazing, saying journalists must be left alone to do their job unhindered.

That’s fine. But let’s all step back and think.

You see, crime is a very sensitive issue in our country. It is a big problem and a major threat. People lose their lives every day. People have lost loved ones. It probably rates as the biggest security risk facing us. So, it’s very difficult to talk about crime without being emotional.

Viewing those masked criminals on e.tv talking about their planned attacks during the Soccer World Cup was no one’s idea of fun. It was chilling stuff.

As soon as the e.tv saga erupted, the editors (Sanef) rushed back, dusted off and started brandishing the profession’s age-old, sacred­ principle: “The journalist’s right to protect his or her sources”.

The problem here is that the “protection-of-a-source” principle by itself is riddled with contradictions. The line is blurred, and therefore it’s easy to cross.

How do you define a source? When does a source become something else, as in the case of the e.tv story?

How do you define those criminals on the e.tv footage? Do they truly qualify to be referred to as sources? Do they deserve to be protected?

The journalism profession must go on a bosberaad to find clear definitions of these things and unravel the contradictions.

You see, context is everything. In the e.tv context, dangerous criminals were not only interviewed, but were also glorified on national television. It could be argued that the whole thing amounted to incitement.

The problem Sanef will always have is the quiet and secretive behaviour of journalists when they investigate these scoops. In the e.tv case, Sanef will know exactly what happened that led to those criminals parading themselves on television. What was the agreement with e.tv? Was there a monetary promise to those thugs? If not, how did it all unfold?

What other stupid behaviour do journalists undertake to earn a scoop? That will always be between the journalist and the source. Sanef might never know the truth. All it will do is come to the defence of the journalist when hell has broken loose. It’s like shooting in the dark.

Journalists are adrenaline junkies. A scoop is a great achievement. From time to time, a journalist will come along and stage heroics. It’s a big thrill that comes as part and parcel­ of the profession. With it comes great recognition and respect. It also leads to prizes like the Pulitzer.

National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele argues that the self-confessed thugs on e.tv cannot possibly be defined as sources. “They are thugs,” he cried.

If the question “who are journalists accountable to” was asked by members of civil society, what would the answer be?

Are we accountable to our sources even if they are dangerous thugs like the ones who appeared on e.tv?

Let’s explain ourselves or the profession is going to become irrelevant. — Moneyweb.co.za

• Sipho Ngcobo is a former deputy editor of Business Report and ex-managing editor of Enterprise Magazine. He has also written for such publications as the Sunday Times, the World Paper in Boston and was employed by the New York Times Group in the United States between 1989 and 1991.

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