William Bird | Attacks on journalist perpetuate disinformation strategies and threaten democracy

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Those attacking News24 journalist Karyn Maughan seek to drown out her responses, writes the author. (Image: News24)
Those attacking News24 journalist Karyn Maughan seek to drown out her responses, writes the author. (Image: News24)

The current attacks on News24 legal journalist Karyn Maughan aren't just despicable for how they insult and demean and violate her dignity, they are despicable because they perpetuate and celebrate misogyny and threaten freedom of expression and our democracy, writes Media Monitoring Africa's William Bird.

Sometimes our media are their own worst enemies– but without them, our democracy would be even weaker, if not failed.

We rely on our journalists to hold the powerful to account – a great example of this was in 2009, when the amazing Mandy Rossouw broke the Nkandla story.

Our journalists are as essential to democracy as our justice system, Parliament, and the executive. So, when they are attacked, when they are demeaned, insulted, assaulted online, bullied and threatened, it isn't just a matter for the media and groups like Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) - it represents a threat to our democracy. These threats need to be condemned by all who value or have an interest in strengthening our democracy. That so many of the attacks are gendered requires all of us to counter as they fundamentally undermine the right to dignity and equality of all women.

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The current attacks on Karyn Maughan aren't just despicable for how they insult and demean and violate her dignity, they are despicable because they perpetuate and celebrate misogyny and threaten freedom of expression and our democracy. All of us have a role to play in defending and deepening basic human rights.

It is perhaps one of the most known media roles in a democratic state - to hold the powerful to account. We have dedicated teams like AmabhunganeScorpio, and teams inside news organisations like News24 where the investigations team has been doing the work the state has failed to do, and it was exposing corruption that got whistle-blower Babita Deokaran killed.

Without our media, we would not have had the Gupta Leaks, as well as countless other stories like those involving the National Lotteries Commission (brought to us by Raymond Joseph and Anton van Zyl). In a digital world, however, journalists have another crucial role to play.

We rely on our journalists and news media to bring us accurate and credible information. 

With social media, the beauty is you can find just about any information on any area that piques your interest, sadly you can also find information that has no basis and that is also harmful. Our journalists then have a critical role not only to hold people to account but to fight through the noise and efforts to silence them and offer us information that is credible and accurate.

READ | Adriaan Basson: Mr Zuma, you strike a journalist, you strike a rock

This aspect is also not new per say, but two elements make this aspect of the role of media in a democracy even more critical. The first is that in a digital world, it is no longer about finding information from scarce sources but finding accurate, credible information you can rely on to make informed decisions from an unending stream of information targeting us 24/7.

The second element is that with the digital deluge, our time and attention span is limited, and journalist has the even more difficult job of seeking to explain complex issues and unpack complex aspects in a short period. Our good journalists will therefore help us understand difficult issues in a short space of time, based on information we can rely on.  

What's this got to do with attacks on our journalists? There are very few journalists these days who specialise and understand various aspects of our democracy. Understanding the courts and the justice system and how they work requires an additional set of skills and expertise. We have very few of these. Karyn Maughan and Franny Rabkin are two such journalists. Both spend an inordinate amount of time ploughing through thousands of pages of court documents and following the processes so that we as the public can understand what’s going on.

Threatening posts 

None of this is to suggest that journalists are above critique, or that media houses don't have and shouldn't be strongly challenged. For the last 29 years, Media Monitoring Africa has been consistent in challenging our media on a range of issues, from fairness to racism, sexism, and ageism. There is a critical distinction, however, between critiquing media, having diverse views and attacking them.  

"Fuck advocate Karyn Maughan" – isn't just inaccurate; Maughan isn’t an advocate, it's pointless, and the kind of invective you would expect from a schoolyard. 

"Karyn Maughan is a typical racist fuck” or "Karyn you are a demon and must be punished." 

These are some of the milder social media posts. Crucially, they don't engage or challenge - they threaten and undermine. MMA has written extensively on how mis- and disinformation work, especially during Covid19 and the elections. The responses we see to Karyn Maughan are clearly coordinated and match standard patterns of a disinformation strategy. 

READ | ANALYSIS: Zuma's charges against prosecutor, journalist attempt at attacking process, media freedom

Doubt, deflect and deluge/dominate. For disinformation to work, it doesn’t need to persuade people of the reality it sets out all it needs to do is create doubt. Once you doubt whether you know something, it makes an informed decision and taking a position nearly impossible. To help shift the narrative away from another event, disinformers use the strategy to deflect attention to other areas.  Currently, the strategy is being used to deflect attention onto Maughan and set up a new debate or conspiracy – whether she is biased, a criminal etc.

The third element we see is deluge or dominate – using networks, those attacking Maughan seek to drown out her responses. By using vile invective they hope her messages will disappear and that she will be silenced. They ensure that by constantly posting it is Maughan the trends and not the rights issue, such strategies are used to game the algorithms that then make up what each of us see on our social media streams.  

Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to with your name and town or province. You are welcome to also send a profile picture. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

We have seen strong editorials and press releases from our media, here and here. Unfortunately, the media is not united.

eNCA seemingly to engage, asked their audiences the following question: "Former President Jacob Zuma is pursuing private prosecutions against journalist Karyn Maughan and Advocate Billy Downer. He says they leaked his private medical records. What do you think?"

It is astonishing that when eNCA journalists have been subjected to much abuse both on and offline that eNCA would seek to frame the question in that manner, as though it is a matter of opinion as to whether Maughan broke the law. 

Maughan herself tweeted the following:

“Judge Koen recorded the full contents of the letter I have been charged over in his judgment dismissing former President Zuma's special plea. The letter was filed by Zuma’s lawyers and the state as part of a postponement bid. You can read it from para 35:…". 

Even if eNCA disagrees with Maughan, to frame the challenge as whether she leaked Zuma's medical records is completely inaccurate. Ironically the slapdash question demonstrates why we need skilled journalists who can report on our justice system and who know the difference between medical records and a letter.   

So, what can each of us do? Here are some practical tips, if you or a journalist is being attacked online, block the trolls. Most platforms have this option. It's quick and easy and means you won't see their bile.  If you want to do more, report the posts to Real411, especially if you think they constitute harassment, incitement, disinformation or hate speech. By reporting to Real411 you help build evidence and the action from platforms. Repeat and re-post those who stand up for rights and who condemn the attacks and efforts to silence. By sharing the content of those who stand for rights, you make it more likely others will see them and you can help shift the narrative.  

- William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa.

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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