A FAMOUS example of a journalist bravely speaking truth to power, regardless of personal consequences, comes from Jewish history in 1898, when French writer Emile Zola (a non-Jew), published a front page open letter in the paper L’Aurore to the French President headlined “J’Accuse…!” (In English: “I accuse…! Letter to the President of the Republic”). It was about the notorious Dreyfus affair, and became a benchmark for journalistic daring towards people in high office.
A Jewish officer in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, convicted of treason and jailed, though there was no direct evidence. Zola risked his career by accusing the army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. He wanted a libel case to be opened against him so evidence disproving Dreyfus’ guilt would be made public. The case divided France bitterly between the army and Catholic Church, and liberal society.
Zola was tried and convicted for criminal libel. He fled to England, saying: “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.” In 1906, the Supreme Court exonerated Dreyfus. Zola’s 1898 article marked a significant journalistic victory.
In South Africa today, the thousands of leaked Gupta-family emails incriminating public officials in self-enriching sleaze are a foundation for the “J’Accuse” of this country. It comes amidst growing intimidation of journalists.
Last week Suna Venter (32), an SABC journalist fired for resisting censorship at the public broadcaster died. She had been harassed, shot with a pellet gun, threatened by phone and assaulted. Her car’s tyres were slashed and brake cables cut, and her flat broken into. She was diagnosed with “Broken Heart Syndrome”, a cardiac condition from stress which weakens heart muscles.
And also last week, the group Black First Land First (BLF) – a mob of black fascists parading as ‘activists’ with reported links to the Gupta family – harassed respected journalist Peter Bruce outside his home, and published a list of white journalists they would target, including the country’s finest: Peter Bruce, Sam Sole, Adriaan Basson, Stephen Grootes, Max du Preez, Barry Bateman and Alec Hogg. All were critical of the Zuma government and links to the Guptas. BLF also said “black” journalists such as Ferial Haffajee, Karima Brown and Eusebius McKaiser who mimic these “white agents of white monopoly capital… must repent, ask for forgiveness from black people for being used by white monopoly capital.”
South Africa has a short tradition of democracy. Its young plant of freedom could still be uprooted. One does not need a long memory to recall apartheid, when journalists took extreme personal risks to write truthfully about the goings-on. One well-known example was Ruth First – wife of underground activist Joe Slovo – who was murdered in exile by apartheid forces in 1982 by means of a parcel bomb.
Fortunately, the freedom struggle is sufficiently recent so many who fought it are still around. They will not go quietly into the night. And younger journalists are coming up unafraid to tell the truth, at personal risk.
ANC bigwigs say “irresponsible” journalists badmouth people in authority unjustly. In Jewish terminology, they accuse the media of lashon hara – malicious gossip-mongering. A Yiddish parable likens gossip to taking a feather mattress up a mountain and cutting it open: the feathers, like loose talk, fly in the wind and cannot be pulled back. This is doubly apt in the Twitter age.
In our current political context the concept must be inverted. The feathers from the leaked Gupta emails being released are grains of truth. Bluster and arrogance from the ANC cannot pull them back. In South Africa today, we can no longer say we did not know about the corruption and lies. The question is: what will we do about it?