Sunday Times: Journalists failing South Africa on police violence

Journalists failing South Africa on police violence

Jane Duncan, Sunday Times, 27 October 2013

Last month, 17 year old Nqobile Nzuza was shot dead by the police in a protest over housing and evictions in Cato Crest informal settlement, Durban. Another person was shot and wounded. The protest was part of a series of road-blockades organised by the shackdwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo.

The police maintain that they acted in self-defence. They say that they were called to the area to respond to a disturbance. Two policemen were attacked by a large crowd, which stoned their vehicle, breaking the windows, and attempting to pull them from it, and they shot at the crowd to prevent themselves from being killed.

Abahlali denies the police’s claims, stating that the police opened fire on the crowd without provocation. Her family said that she had been shot in the back and the movement claimed that the second person was also shot from behind. These details add considerable weight to the movement’s claims that they were both fleeing when they were shot.

Yet most media reports gave prominence to the police’s account. Abahlali’s account received less prominence, but its spokesperson was apparently not on the scene at the time. In addition to the police and Abahlali, media sources also included the Independent Police Investigations Directorate, government, and the slain woman’s family.

Why is this seemingly balanced selection of sources a problem? Clearly, what happened on that fateful day is contested. So, it stands to reason that journalists should seek out eyewitnesses – rather than sticking to the spokespeople – compare and contrast the competing versions of events, and build up their own independent narratives. Yet out of a sample of seventeen articles, only two showed any attempt by journalists to speak to eyewitnesses.

One of these was by the Daily Sun, a paper that has developed a reputation of being much more ‘on the ground’ than most. The paper quoted an unnamed eyewitness saying that the police blocked the protestors’ route, ran after them and shot at them while they were running away.

Yet, even in these stories, there was no evidence of journalists having gone to the scene and looked for evidence of stones, broken glass or any other evidence that tested the police’s account. This should have been eminently possible for the Durban-based papers; yet they were the most prone to parroting the spokespeople.

This is not the first incident of paper-thin reporting on police violence. While much of the reporting on the Marikana massacre was excellent, there was also a significant but under-acknowledged editorial failure in the early coverage that led to the full extent of the police violence being unreported.

As in Cato Crest, journalists largely failed to interview eyewitnesses, relying instead on spokespeople, who were also not eyewitnesses to the full extent of the horror. A simple inspection of the crime scene would have revealed a second site away from the initial shootings, dotted with forensic markings, and suggesting that the killings were much more extensive than reported initially. Journalists often complain about a lack of resources for investigation, and justifiably so, but all that were needed in the Marikana case were feet, eyes, and at least some ability to decode a crime scene.

Then there was the killing of Andries Tatane, which saw several police officers being acquitted for lack of evidence. The judge argued that the officers responsible couldn’t be identified as their faces were obscured by their helmets. In July, the British Channel 4 flighted a documentary on police violence, by conflict journalist Inigo Gilmore. Gilmore claimed that he had footage showing the faces of those police responsible for the killings.

Yet there is scant evidence of any attempts to assess these claims. If his claims had weight, then surely the media should have run stories identifying the culprits. But no such stories were forthcoming, and, as a result, the Tatane killing remains unresolved. Presumably, his killers continue to ‘serve and protect’.

South African journalists largely failed to report on cellphone footage taken by a Tactical Response Team member in Marikana, capturing a policeman boasting about who he had shot. Then the footage was picked up by Channel 4, although City Press had posted the footage up on its website several months before the Channel 4 story broke, but failed to make a story out of it themselves.

The police argument that they acted in self-defence in Marikana continues to unravel at the Farlam Commission. Furthermore, in Durban, several cases involving police accusations of public violence against Abahlali members have been thrown out of court for lack of evidence. In dismissing murder charges against its members in 2011, the judge accused the state’s witnesses of being dishonest and unreliable.

These incidents should have made journalists even more committed to probing the veracity of the police account in Cato Crest. Yet there is little evidence of this having happened, suggesting that the necessary lessons from previous editorial failures have even not been acknowledged, never mind learned.

Too much journalism has become an unthinking ritual of pursuing ‘objectivity’, and seeking ‘balance’ to achieve this. But in practice, this ritual translates into phoning the spokespeople on both sides of a particular conflict, and reporting what they say; the journalistic duty has supposedly been discharged once the story has been ‘balanced’ in this way.

But this ritual leads to journalists not wanting to take sides on matters of considerable public importance, when they really need to. ‘Balance’ means that they don’t have to go out on a limb and assess who is right and who is wrong, or whether the viewpoints being presented are just or unjust.

In the case of police violence, ‘balance’ is being used as an excuse to avoid investigation and even independent thinking. Spokespeople-driven journalism also privileges resource-rich organisations, which can afford to maintain a constant flow of information to the media. In other words, ‘balance’ is becoming an obstacle to good journalism, rather than a road towards it.

South African journalism has considerable investigative capacity: that is one of its main strengths. But, trends (albeit uneven) have emerged in how this capacity is being put to use. Those stories that focus on the misdoings of the political elites in the security cluster seem to receive a great deal of attention: the Richard Mdluli story comes to mind here.

Granted, these elites should come in for considerable scrutiny, as their (mis)doings set the stage for abuses further down the chain of command. But, security cluster misconduct that occurs at the point of conflict with the working-class and unemployed is subject to less probing.

This trend reproduces and reinforces broader media and social inequalities. Two decades into democracy, the South African media still constitutes an elite public sphere. Consider, for instance, the number of business publications and business journalists, relative to the number of labour voices. The unemployed have practically no voice in the media, except as social problems (such as violent protestors) or victims. Women and young people continue to be marginalised.

This means that media discourses come to us already inherently unbalanced. Nothing short of a commitment to social justice, and to affirming society’s most marginalised voices, will correct this imbalance. This should not mean automatically portraying protestors as saints and the state as sinners, though

But it should mean going out of one’s way to tell stories that those in positions of authority would prefer to remain buried. It also means recognising that those who aren’t in position of authority are more likely to be bearers of these stories, and seeking them out. It means looking beyond the official spin about protestors who engage in road-blockades as being inherently criminal and therefore untrustworthy.

It must be recognised that these blockades are acts of desperation when all else has failed, including several court interdicts to prevent evictions, and in the face of assassinations of two outspoken Abahlali activists. No rational person wants to be arrested, shot or killed. Yet as the movement’s S’bu Zikode has explained: ‘when all else fails you, including the law, there is still “amandla”.

In view of these structured biases towards the powerful, journalistic objectivity as applied to stories of police violence at best, fails to unsettle and at worst, reinforces these biases. It does little to give voice, much less agency, to those worst affected by the problem.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect journalists to compensate for ineffective investigatory and politically compromised prosecutorial state agencies. After all, they are in an extremely stressful profession, not made any easier by declining circulation, cost-cutting and growing pressures on media freedom. Furthermore, the conflict reporting skills that existed in some newsrooms in the eighties and nineties are in short supply now.

But the situation is what it is, and unless the media step up and commit more investigative capacity to the problem of police violence, then it will continue and even intensify. Journalism that refuses to take sides in the face of injustice, using false notions of balance as the pretext, will do little to prevent a possible descent into a quasi-police state. And this descent will have devastating consequences for us all, including journalists.