The Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Reporting is an annual ray of sunshine in our often foggy journalism world, reminding us that there are journalists in this country who do great and difficult public interest work.
The prize – by far the biggest in the country – also provides insight into what’s happening in the news media: who’s thriving, who’s investing, who’s emerging, who’s embracing new technology, who’s challenging the big outlets and so on.
In its 17th year, the award recognises “exemplars of investigative reporting”. The judges look for “ original and enterprising work that exposes something we would otherwise not know, digs for the story behind the story, serves the public interest and has impact”.
So it does not deal with the mass of daily information that makes up most journalism – and is no less important. It homes in on the work that holds power to account and tries to enforce accountability in our fragile democracy, journalism that is disruptive, exciting and ground-breaking.
This year there were 26 entries, of which 10 were shortlisted, and judges said the general standard was higher than last year. Notably, only seven appeared first in print and fully half of them were online entries, some of them with the rich multimedia and visualisation that this medium enables. Sadly, there were none from radio and only four from television, none of which came from the biggest broadcaster, SABC.
Although two major mainstream outlets – Sunday Times and News24 – put in multiple entries, there is a continuing shift from the traditional major print-based outlets to independent, stand alone, internet-based and often non-profit operations, such as Viewfinder, amaBhungane, Daily Maverick, Outlier and New Frame.
This year there were no book entries, a surprise as much of the strongest journalism in recent years came from this long form. But there were three podcast series among the entries, indicating the growing importance and force of this new medium.
Subject matter was diverse. Apart from the usual focus on state corruption and capture, there were also entries dealing with the collapse of basic services, like the railways and small towns, land issues, fake Covid vaccine certificates, the July riots and looting, teachers grooming and preying on teenagers, mining rights, food prices and muti murders. There was also a group of entries relating to vigilante action, assassinations and police conduct – a growing focus on the violence and lawlessness of our politics.
The prize was shared by Daily Maverick’s Pieter Louis Myburgh’s Digital Vibes, an exposé of Covid corruption, and the amaBhungane team of Susan Comrie and Dewald van Rensburg for the UPL chemical disaster. All of them have been previous winners.
Myburgh was cited for his “dogged persistence and digging to piece together the sordid mess of ministerial friends and family who benefited from over-priced contracts”. The amaBhungane pair were praised for sharing the data they got about what toxic material was in the Durban warehouse that burnt during the July looting, putting public interest above the desire to own the story.
The awards showed that our investigative journalists still do outstanding work and play a key role in exposing wrongdoing. On the other hand, the judges also highlighted what they called “a real low”: the story of the Sithole decuplets. “Rogue editors, journalists and newspaper sold us what promised to be a heart-warming story about a mother delivering 10 babies, but which quickly fell apart. The newspaper persisted in insisting this was a case of child trafficking without producing any substantial evidence.
“That a major newspaper group could sustain this, and that advertisers and others continue to support them, is very worrying. It might be tempting to dismiss this as nonsense and fantasy, but it is damaging to all journalism, undermining our attempt to fight disinformation and rebuild trust in journalism. It is a problem we need to face up to and deal with.”
The judges warned of tough times ahead “as the consensus of 1994 cracks” and “the rule of law and the rights enshrined in the constitution are described – wrongly – as impediments to transformation”. Attacks on critical, independent and investigative journalism were not yet as frequent as attacks on the judiciary, “but, we suspect, not far behind”.
“As the governing party moves towards a marginal majority, we must expect a tough time for critical and independent voices”, they warned.
This meant that it will become “even more important to strengthen, support, defend, recognize and promote accountability reporting”.
*Harber is the convenor of the TK Award and executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression.