'SA has incredible people': Karyn Maughan on Twitter, compassion and why she loves being a journalist

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Karyn Maughan (Supplied)
Karyn Maughan (Supplied)

When you ask legal reporter Karyn Maughan to tell you about the highlights of her career, you expect her to talk about the success of her highly acclaimed books, or how she scooped international media with her coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial.  

But for Maughan, that is not what comes to mind.

Instead, she tells you about an obscure case in which a youngster was found guilty of a gang-related crime and, during his sentencing, got up in court and apologised to the family of the victim, taking full responsibility for the crime he committed. The impact she saw the apology have on them, proved to Maughan that with a system that has restorative justice as its ultimate goal, healing is possible.

This optimism is at the core of Maughan's outlook on life, and why she stays committed to her work as a journalist, despite over the years being exposed to some of the worst humanity has to offer.

She has more than 20 years' experience in journalism, out of which two books were born – Love is War: The Modimolle Monster and Lolly Jackson: When Fantasy Becomes Reality – both the product of countless hours in court and interrogating the criminal justice system.

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She has a passion for making the law accessible and thinks little of the criticism that, because journalists are not educated in the law, they can't accurately report on it.

"It's innate in journalists to go into systems of knowledge we're not qualified in, and explaining it in ordinary terms to our readers," the 42-year-old says.

"The law is very technical, and this keeps people from understanding the realms of the court. That's why I always say, let's demystify it. Let's make it more accessible so that the realms of the court are available for people to understand and debate. It can't be that only people who studied law can talk about it, the same way that it can't be that only doctors can talk about health. That's a key part of what journalists do."

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And right now may very well be the most important time yet for people to understand the workings of the justice system, with more and more fears being raised that parts of the judiciary are becoming dysfunctional. In addition to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) becoming politicised and failing miserably in its oversight role, Maughan believes there is a leadership void in the Constitutional Court that needs to be addressed.

"Everyone used to say that, during the Jacob Zuma administration, the judiciary was the last remaining bastion that was not undermined. That is no longer true," she says.

Having grown up in Cape Town, Maughan got her first vacation job as a general reporter at the Cape Argus more than 20 years ago. It's here where her love of court reporting started.

Critical, nuanced voices

When veteran high court reporter Estelle Ellis, who she credits for showing her the ropes, resigned, she took the gap. When she eventually moved to The Star in Johannesburg, her career took off in earnest as she started reporting on the high court, just as Zuma's corruption matters took off.

Today she is regarded as one of the foremost legal reporters in the country. With a Twitter following of more than 400 000, she is also a prolific tweeter, despite sometimes suffering enormous abuse at the hands of bots and other tweeters.

"It's a global phenomenon, this ongoing project to silence critical and nuanced voices. So we have a discourse dominated by extreme voices on both sides," she says. "If I remove myself from that space, it sends a message to other people that the project to silence people has worked."

Instead, she made a decision to focus on real humans in real life, and let her work speak for itself.

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But, she reiterates, there is huge abuse being measured out against journalists, particularly women, who are, thanks to social media, more accessible to the public than ever before.

"Globally there is huge backlash against journalists. Just look at what happened during the Trump era. I'm lucky to have a strong support network, and have put in place emotional barriers. But I worry about younger journalists, who choose to be silent because they don't want to be victimised."

When Maughan is not spending time with her nieces and nephew, she is watching RuPaul's Drag Race or Formula 1: Drive to Survive, or, she admits with a laugh, looking at videos of puppies and kind acts on TikTok.

"We're in such a space of pain because of the sheer pressure and overwhelm of the job. We report on all the corruption, but nothing happens. The biggest mistake we make is to feel that there is no hope. Because there is always hope. South Africa comes from this history of working to achieve a better future. South Africa has incredible, generous people."

Maughan balks at the idea that journalists have to be cold, hardcore people and detach themselves from their stories to be able to do their jobs. She believes compassion is at the heart of journalism, which agrees with her core belief that God has placed her in her position to be a source of kindness and to tell people's stories.

"My faith is the cornerstone of what I do and has enabled me to operate knowing I'm meant to be here and I'm meant to do this. God has given me talents and I'm going to use them to the best of my ability to do what I was meant to do.

"I love the rush of journalism and informing people but fundamentally this is why I do what I do."

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