A lack of transparency about government activities is a result of media contending with increasingly unresponsive officials, whose taxpayer-funded job is to communicate.   

Government spokespeople need to be held accountable for their unresponsiveness. This was the message of an online seminar hosted by the Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ) on April 26. 

Titled “Why We Investigated the Thabo Bester Story”, the seminar was addressed by Nathan Geffen, editor of GroundUp, the media outlet that broke the Thabo Bester escape story. He said, “Government spokespeople are paid well for their work, but don’t seem to be doing a good job in responding to journalists.” He lamented that “The quality of information framing from the state has declined.”

Geffen added that although one can “never be sure that what [they] publish is definitively true”, there needs to be a great deal of evidence to support their story. Facilitated by Wits adjunct professor Anton Harber, the seminar learnt that newsrooms are facing a big problem in which government spokespeople are becoming increasingly unresponsive, which has resulted in a lack of transparency in the media. 

In a recent article, “Thabo Bester escape: Many unanswered questions about the death of Katlego Bereng”, GroundUp revealed that a South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson had refused to provide comment about how a body had ended up in Bester’s cell. 

One Twitter user was moved to comment that “Something is fishy,” emphasising the public’s mistrust in state officials. 

Responding to a question by advocate Glynnis Breytenbach in Parliament, retired justice Edwin Cameron of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services said it was out of frustration at the law enforcement officials dragging their feet that he leaked the information to GroundUp about the burnt body found at the Mangaung prison not being that of Bester.

The reality is that journalists need information from state officials to ensure the credibility of their stories. How then, can the officials be held accountable or even be absolved of their actions if they refuse to speak? 

As Harber concluded: “There needs to be transparency from state officials” (regarding the Thabo Bester investigation) as it is “their constitutional duty” to bring forth critical information to the public.

FEATURED IMAGE: An Illustration of reporters holding microphones and taking notes. Photo: Adobe Stock