How to dig up political dirt
By Ray Mahlaka and Dineo Bendile
INTIMIDATION, bribery and smear campaigns are the challenges faced by investigative journalists in South Africa, said Sunday Times journalists Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Rob Rose.
Wa Afrika and Rose are experts in this as they are the team who exposed the wasteful expenditure of state funds by former communications minister Dina Pule.
Earlier this year Pule was suspended from her position following an investigation into her improper conduct after she allegedly awarded her boyfriend, Phosane Mngqibisa, a tender for the organisation of the ICT Indaba in 2012.
The journalists’ interest was sparked by tip-offs and inside sources from the department of communications. They would later use records from a travel agency after Pule had all her own records of her holidays with her boyfriend destroyed.
Investigative journalism tips
The speakers were able to give delegates some tips based on their investigative experience.
According to the speakers, one of the fundamental aspects of investigative journalism was the importance of ensuring the accuracy of any information published. Their initial articles were met with denials, forcing them to get more information on Pule.
“We became unpopular… we were forced to get more damning evidence for people to believe us,” said wa Afrika. Rose and wa Afrika said they did not stop at getting documents but also sought out the authors of the documents.
“If you get any document, the best way to verify information is to find who is or are authors of this document,” wa Afrika said. “Any document is written by the source, try and trace which is the author and interrogate them on why they wrote the document.”
According to wa Afrika, after breaking the revelations of Pule he had several meetings with the former minister and some of her colleagues where they attempted to intimidate him and offer cash for his silence.
He urged journalists to meet sources in public places that they know well to avoid any possible attacks or being accused of accepting a bribe.
“Make sure that when you meet someone you meet them at a strategic place. Make sure you know the place you are meeting at and you know that there are cameras,” wa Afrika said.
Persistence is needed when uncovering the truth as an investigative journalist. While investigating Pule’s improprieties the team received a lot of backlash from politicians and Pule herself. However, this only encouraged them.
“The more you deny, the more a journalist will dig. And the more they dig the more stuff will come out,” wa Afrika said.
He told delegates that journalists are often intimidated by people with power to force them to back down from investigations.
“When you become an investigative journalist, one thing you open yourself up to is smear campaigns, slander, people trying to intimidate you. People will try to kill you, not because you are a bad person, but because you stepped on some toes,” wa Afrika said.
The Guardian newspaper journalist David Smith, who attended wa Afrika and Rose’s presentation, said he wanted to find out more about investigative journalism in South Africa.
“I wanted to know what stories are being covered and who’s covering them… there is a lot of good journalists doing good work, Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times are a few [such] publications. I think South Africa probably has the strongest investigative journalism in Africa,” he said.
Eyewitness News: Dina Pule fined and suspended. August 7, 2013