The case for Sunday Times journalists to come clean

Former Hawks boss Anwa Dramat. Photo: Archive
Former Hawks boss Anwa Dramat. Photo: Archive

The Sunday Times editor's latest apology on the role the newspaper had played to facilitate the capture of key state institutions was a proper (if imperfect) one and should be applauded. But for the sake of history and journalism it cannot be the end of the story.

I want to make a case for the journalists who were responsible for the worst chapter in the history of South African media since 1994 to be held properly accountable. They should be compelled to divulge the names of those the newspaper now confesses had "manipulated" it because of their "ulterior motives". That's shorthand for agents of crime intelligence and other dark forces whose agenda it was to capture the Hawks and SARS so they could be used to further the nefarious aims of the Zuma faction of the ANC.

We're not talking about a small mistake or slip-up under pressure. A small group of Sunday Times journalists wrote a series of utterly false reports painting a crack investigative unit at SARS as a "rogue unit" acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally, and another series of reports implicating senior Hawks officers in criminal actions. 

These stories were then used by those who had it planted on the journalists to get rid of dozens of some of the best senior civil servants we ever had, including three Hawks generals. Most of them had their careers destroyed and many had their private lives devastated. Several were prosecuted maliciously, and some of these court cases are still pending.

Our democracy, the rule of law and clean government were all seriously undermined by these actions. SARS and the Hawks are still struggling to recover from the damage.

Let me first get this out of the way: editor Bongani Siqoko is by all accounts a competent editor of integrity. He wasn't at the Sunday Times when these shameful acts were perpetrated. His apologies on behalf of his predecessors and journalists he had no control over must be painful. 

Having said that, I'm not sure why he would preface his otherwise profound apology with the statement about the news articles in question that the Sunday Times was "in pursuit of nothing but the truth and we were not motivated by political, commercial or personal interests. We stood to gain nothing from reporting on these issues but merely fulfilled our constitutional obligation to inform you".

If that statement were true, how does one explain that the journalists involved and their seniors at the time were repeatedly advised by several people, including their own colleagues, that they were doing the bidding of dark forces and that their reports were patently false, but decided to go ahead anyway – not in just one edition, but spread over many months?

A former Hawks spokesperson and colonel, McIntosh Polela, tweeted this week that when he was with the Hawks "I warned Sunday Times journalists that they were being fed false information on rendition, I was ignored." (Former Hawks bosses Anwa Dramat and Shadrack Sibiya were fired after they were accused of complicity in the rendition of Zimbabwean criminals.)

My former colleague Pearlie Joubert, a member of the Sunday Times investigative unit from 2013 to 2015, stated in a 2015 affidavit that she had resigned from the newspaper because she had not been "willing to be party to practices at the Sunday Times which I verily believed to have been unethical and immoral". She said the Sunday Times stories on the "rogue unit" were false and "an orchestrated effort by persons to advance untested allegations in a public arena". The Sunday Times's reaction was that they stood by their reporters' stories.

South Africa needs to know

I know of several others, among them senior journalists, who had warned the newspaper at the time that they were being used in a "black op".

South Africa needs to know exactly whose project this was and what political aims were served.

To a proper investigative journalist, the confidentiality of sources is and should be sacrosanct. Without that, investigative journalism becomes virtually impossible. So to argue that these journalists should be hauled before some authority or commission of inquiry and be forced to reveal their sources is no trivial matter.

The point is these were not real journalist's sources. They were not whistleblowers whose identities should be kept secret. They were agents of the state using and abusing a newspaper to spread falsehoods in order to undermine key state institutions so that they could be used to facilitate corruption and the abuse of power.

To use editor Siqoko's own words, "there was clearly a parallel political project aimed at undermining our democratic values and destroying state institutions, and removing individuals who were seen as obstacles to this project".

That sounds like criminal activities to me. Why should any self-respecting journalist or newspaper want to protect these perpetrators' identities? 

Polela also tweeted: "If called upon by a competent forum to reveal the names of three journalists who were paid to report false information, I shall do so. Two of them now hold senior positions in newsrooms."

One such forum could be the Zondo commission into state capture and/or the Nugent commission into SARS. However, former senior civil servant and Gauteng MEC, professor Mary Metcalfe, is suggesting that the SA National Editor's Forum (Sanef) should create such a forum. I appeal to Sanef to seriously consider this. It's time to clean our house.

If the Sunday Times matter was seen as closed after the editor's apology, it would undermine the credibility of South African media, already seen as paper-thin by many members of the public. It would create the impression that we journalists regard ourselves as exempt from the civic duties we insist that other citizens follow.

And without the names of all those involved in this sordid chapter, we won't know the whole story of the state capture project that took our country to the brink.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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