When I first lived in South Africa about a decade ago, I made a very dear friend: Mandy Rossouw – the brave journalist who first shed light on the Nkandla affair. Mandy would never give up until she got to the truth. She tragically passed away in 2013. To me, she embodied what so many South African journalists today stand for: unwavering determination, sound principles, a commitment to the truth and nothing but the truth, patriotism and courage in face of the mighty.
I firmly believe that without the courage and boldness of journalists like Mandy, South Africa would not be where it is today. We would not have known (early enough) about state capture. We would not know how deep the ugly tentacles of corruption reached into state, business and society. We would not be breathlessly following the judicial inquiries and commissions that are finally targeting the guilty. And: we would possibly not have witnessed the change of political guard the country underwent at the beginning of this year.
South Africa – like Germany - can truly pride itself on its diverse and independent media. But with media freedom also comes responsibility – to report accurately, to report fairly and to report ethically.
The recent revelations on the discredited Sunday Times stories risk to damage the public trust in institutions that are crucial to the functioning of any democracy.
I applaud Bongani Siqoko for owning up to the Sunday Times’ serious shortcomings in the reporting and editing of the stories in question, - stories that have had a severe impact on many people’s lives.
To be honest: I think it would be rare in my country for an editor of such a large and well-respected publication to publically admit it has been wrong. But while the move is truly laudable, the question is: what now?
Trust and reliability are the main currencies in journalism. This is particularly true at a time when anyone owning a mobile phone can claim to be a “journalist”, a time when many people solely consume “news” through their twitter echo chambers, a time when the distinction between facts and fake news too often seems a question of choice and expedience.
I believe that journalism without solid standards is a journalism bound to fail. Journalists must live up to the same high ethical standards that they apply to the political subjects they are reporting on.
If wrongdoing occurs, we expect the media to put the finger on it: to unveil negligence, corruption, abuse. That is the role of journalism. That is the role of the fourth estate. That is the essence of democracy. But if journalists are to effectively fill and exercise that role, they must be unwavering in their own ethical principles.
South Africa’s journalists have proved time and again that they are able to overcome all kinds of difficulties – be they political, economic or financial.
That’s why I have no doubt that the current debate will encourage media houses, watchdogs and journalism organisations to reflect on what is needed for the sector to emerge even stronger.
I also hope the debate will make South Africa’s many, many principled and skilled journalists pursue their jobs with even more determination. We need them. Democracy needs them.
As a reminder, I looked up one of the late Mandy Rossouw’s articles in the Mail & Guardian.
The first lines read: “Concern is growing in political and business circles about the relationship between President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family. … Their relationship has blossomed since he became president.”
The article was written in July 2010. There was more to come.