Reader engagement is key to investigative journalism today: Anton Harber

Founding editor of Mail and Guardian talks about Guptas’ heist, state of South African journalism, issues of censorship, health reportage and more.

ByBiraj Swain
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Reader engagement is key to investigative journalism today: Anton Harber
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Anton Harber, co-founder and former editor of Mail and Guardian, former Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of eNCA and Professor and Dean of School of Journalism at WITS University, South Africa, speaks to Biraj Swain, ICFJ Fellow, on the back of the Guptas’ heist expose.

Biraj Swain: This is an important inflection point, your country has one of the finest examples of investigative journalism, the exposure of one Indian family’s capture of state, bankrolled by one Indian public sector bank, Bank of Baroda. The collusion between the Guptas and Jacob Zuma has cost Mr Zuma his job. Has South African journalism always been so nosy, muckraking?

Anton Harber: Investigative journalism has been very important for media outlets here. In fact, readers’ interest and engagement have ensured that news-gathering costs always factored investigative journalism. Now, when newspapers’ circulation and influence is dwindling, paid subscription TV is on the rise, digital media and radio is also on the rise, investigative journalism continues to find place in most formats.

In fact, one of the most high-impact expose on the heist was done by a journalist named Ama Bhungaane last year and she raised a million rands through crowd-funding. So readers are not only interested in the expose of state capture but they are paying for it too.

I manage an investigative journalism fund, the Taco Kuiper Fund for Investigative Journalism, and the kind of proposals we get are very impressive.

But all is not rosy, there is resource crisis in the print media, long-form journalism too. And digital is depending too much on the freelancers’ model that makes fact-checking (the core of investigative journalism) a challenge. But to highlight the challenges that resource limitation can pose to journalism and investigative journalism per se, the Guptas have bought stakes in media to influence the narrative too.

Coming back to your core question, has South African journalism always been so nosy? We have chronicled some of the finest examples of investigative journalism in our country in our book Troublemakers: The best of South Africa’s investigative journalism. The investigative journalism in South Africa has its roots in the anti-apartheid struggle, so yes, it is important.

Biraj Swain: Tell us from the beginning, how has South African journalism evolved pre and post-apartheid?

Anton Harber: The journalism in the country has been shaped by the anti-apartheid movement. For example, Mail and Guardian, which was founded in 1985, about a decade before our independence, was a response to the hunger for information from the public. It was a liberal paper, dedicated to reporting facts. When the repression was peaking, our journalism was hardening too. The paper was three months’ old when emergency was imposed and reporting on banned organisations (like then African National Congress) and on prisoners and detainees (like Nelson Mandela) was prosecuted with harsh punishments like confiscation of paper, imprisonment and prosecution of editors.

We had the social capital, because while we were anti-apartheid supporters and ANC sympathisers, we, the editors, were white, so defying the emergency restrictions did not come with the harsh consequences as in the case of other journalism establishments, with black or mixed-race editors. So hunger for information was quenched by a few media outlets like the Mail. The demand was so much that the Guardian UK bought majority stakes in our paper (quite early into operations, in response to our journalism and reader’s dependence on our journalism during the emergency period) and we became Mail and Guardian.

Much of our journalism gets its mettle from the anti-apartheid movement. But our courts and constitution have also built in safeguards for journalism in public interest.

But we had to re-learn the trade during the transition period from 1990-1994 and post-apartheid. To continue the adversarial stance of journalism with the ANC in power meant shedding our ANC sympathies and treating ANC as the ruling party and holding it accountable for democratic and constitutional aspirations. And that was tough. Some of the adversarial journalists, who were doing fierce muck-raking, were targeted. If they were white, the smoke-screen of white privilege was raised. But it was actually adversarial journalism, pro-poor, pro-people, in line with constitutional values.

Biraj Swain: I understand Mail and Guardian was the first paper to go digital, much before digital media was a thing, why was it so?

Anton Harber: So emergency in South Africa meant restrictions on publication were massive. While we continued to defy, we also had major run-ins with the then white supremacist government. And since Guardian was the majority stake-holder, some of the most contentious news was published by Guardian, so the news got out but we were saved from prosecution. Since the anti-apartheid struggle also resulted in many freedom fighters living in exile and there was international solidarity for the struggle, it was important that we catered to the news need of those in exile and those offering us solidarity support. Hence publishing on the world wide web was an obvious thing for us.

Biraj Swain: How would you describe the state of press freedom in your country now? Your country is called the most hopeful democracy and I assume, this hope will be reflected in the freedoms too. Would you like to elaborate?

Anton Harber: There have been attempts to bring a Media Tribunal since 2007, it is back-door censorship, but having tasted censorship and apartheid, the journalistic fraternity is acutely aware of such attempts and the push-back has been vigorous. There was also an attempt to bring an anti-leaks legislation, which was giving a body blow to our freedom of information legislation. We fought that too.

Thankfully, our courts have been true to the mandate of constitution and democracy and litigation against such dark laws has met with success in courts too.

But the diminishing resources are a concern. In the newsrooms, lack of resources means changing the nature of news gathering, fewer full-time reporting and editorial staff and more freelancers. These constraints do impact hard-hitting journalism, fact-checking too.

Biraj Swain: I understand internet access is an issue here. In India, we have one of the worst records of internet shut-downs and our broadband speed is a concern. How is it in South Africa?

Anton Harber: The state of internet access is a concern. It is prohibitively expensive in most parts of the country. So while the digital media is on the rise, the access to digital media isn’t so. And limiting access to the internet is an effective way of blacking out information, censoring too. Some city municipalities and counties are pooling resources to provide free wi-fi hotspots in certain public spaces. But much more could be done. In fact, more needs to be done.

Biraj Swain: What do you think of the state of health journalism in your country? Like the collaboration with the anti-apartheid struggle, I understand the South African media played an important role in the victory of the Treatment Action Campaign to make access to HIV-Aids’ drugs and treatment a fundamental right.

Anton Harber: The health journalists and journalists per se played an important role during the Treatment Action Campaign. But for a country like South Africa, where the public health system is limited, originally designed for 4 million white South Africans, now catering to 55 million population of the country, we need more systems-focused journalism. We also need investigation and expose in the health sector, and private corporate hospitals too. That is an area which is lacking.

I think we need more systems-focused journalism especially with new issues like the increasing burden of non-communicable diseases.

Considering so much of health service provision is riding on mobile phone apps, with restricted/expensive internet, what good will those apps serve? And journalism with a health systems’ focus will be able to pick that up.

Biraj Swain: What about child development journalism, what is your assessment of that?

Anton Harber: We do not have child development journalism and maybe we should not have that too. Super-specialising, over-focusing on a topic makes it technical, minute and strips it off the public agenda component. If we get the health, maternity entitlement, education, family and livelihoods’ aspect of journalism right, then we would be covering all bases of child development journalism de facto.

Of course, there is scope for journalism in the lifestyle genre where child development reporting could be done. But it would be more important to cover the determinants’ aspects like health, nutrition, maternity entitlements and the nature of state’s accountability in all of these.

Biraj Swain: Any parting thoughts?

Anton Harber: There is much India and South Africa have learnt from each other, from non-violent freedom struggle to solidarity with progressive causes and movements. Similarly, there is much the journalists’ fraternity could learn from each other and support each other on, like preserving freedom of the press, resisting censorship, campaigning for internet access and more.

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