An independent media is often the favourite whipping boy of politicians, business and religious charlatans.
And, among media workers, none is more in the firing line than journalists.
The past week has provided an especially dangerous example – a volatile mix of half-baked notions, out-of-context facts in a verbal sludge of historical ignorance and bigotry laced with paranoia.
It was aimed at specific, named journalists and, by implication, the media in general.
The most worrying aspect is that the trigger for this latest outpouring of bile came from individuals who, in the apartheid era, specialised in this form of divisiveness along with more brutal and brutish behaviour.
And the platform chosen for this poison to be spread was the death, funeral and commemoration of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
The idea of apartheid-era spies infesting the media and manipulating the consciousness of the masses played right into a widespread and simplistic narrative based on saints and sinners.
It promotes a view that demands unquestioning obedience and subservience to “our side”, and it boils down to this: if you are not uncritically for us, you are against us; an enemy to be crushed.
Such a view discredits the legacy of Madikizela-Mandela. She was a towering figure, a product of horrendous suffering who possessed great strength. But she was no saint. Nor could she be portrayed only – and utterly out of context – as a sinner.
Former security police operatives know that. But they have now chosen to make comments that are calculated to sow often violent discord among those unaware of the history.
As this process unfolded, there was mention of “40 apartheid spies” in the newsrooms of newspapers, radio and television; that this list had been given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
There is indeed such an original list, but there are others apparently released to sow confusion. The original contains 42 names that date from the early 1960s when the special branch began an intensive effort to recruit journalists.
Many people on that list are now dead, others are long retired. And there is no updated list. However, several names have been added with the claim that they belong on a list that is much talked about, but which few people seem to have seen, let alone analysed.
The problem with such lists is that they make no distinction between “agents”, “sources” and “contacts”. And they often contain “cover” names of innocent people in case the list is leaked to the media.
Agents were trained, paid spies, while sources were people who provided information for reasons ranging from blackmail, the need for money and ideological commitment.
Contacts were journalists who might be relied on to publish a story if it seemed newsworthy. Many, perhaps most, would be unaware that they were being used.
So all names emanating from such quarters have to be treated warily. And that applies to the original list provided by confessed journalist/spy John Horak who died in 2010. It does not contain his name.
But these are issues that must be interrogated, carefully and in context. We need to learn from the past so we do not repeat the same mistakes in future.
This was why the TRC recommended that it should be unlawful for any security agency to recruit journalists. So workers in the media and in all “sensitive” areas should commit themselves to transparency.
Let us not forget that, as late as the year 2000, military intelligence was exposed for having tried to recruit three senior journalists when one of them, Adrian Hadland, spoke out.* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER