A few recent news stories deserve to be highlighted, in case people missed them or their significance.
Pauli van Wyk’s exposé of Sasfin Bank’s alleged role in helping Gold Leaf Tobacco move billions of rand out of the country illegal and avoid tax was important for a number of reasons. Van Wyk’s series of articles in Daily Maverick was lengthy, and it was challenging to get through all 4 000 words of the main piece, but it explained in great depth how the money was laundered and the book entries apparently scrubbed from Sasfin’s records. Although Sasfin puts the blame on “one rogue former employee”, Van Wyk raises questions about how this could happen without senior officials noticing it.
The story gives the lie to a frequent accusation made about our investigative reporters: that they target state corruption, particularly by black people, and let the private sector off lightly. It was never true, but it is good to see further evidence of reporting without fear or favour.
Our banks, in particular, have a reputation for being solid and reliable, but there have now been a string of accusations – think VBS – that must call into question whether there is adequate oversight. Again, brave and thorough work that holds the line against corruption and poor governance.
Most of the material came out of a SARS court case, but Van Wyk had to piece it together to make sense of a complicated story, filling gaps with Whatsapp messages and other material, and show the extent and scale of the problem. She spent long hours on the phone with Sasfin senior officials explaining what happened, but remains convinced that their proclamations of being innocent victims of rogue staff don’t add up. There is more to come of this story.
News24 have done a sterling job over the last few months uncovering what lay behind the killing of Gauteng Department of Health whistleblower Babita Deokaran. They have done dozens of stories, opinion pieces, editorials and podcasts, taking the issue on and not letting go. They have exposed what lay behind her death: not just that she was onto large-scale tender fraud at the Tembisa Hospital, but that her superiors ignored her pleas for support. News24 have made a campaign out of it.
Pressure on the government to act to improve protection for whistleblowers is growing. Judge Raymond Zondo said in the report of his commission of inquiry into corruption that it was “the highest priority that a bona fide whistle blower who reports wrongdoing should receive, as a matter of urgency, effective protection from retaliation”.
He recommended the creation of an agency to handle whistleblowers, criminal and civil immunity for them and an awards system. This was welcomed by groups such as the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa and Whistleblowers for Change, but they and others said this was not enough. The Protected Disclosure Act needs to be strengthened, and there needs to be a system of financial compensation if we are to encourage others to speak out and feel safe to do so.
Imagine, News24’s Mandy Weiner wrote, a Babita Deokaran Act “to ensure that those who emulate her, who put the brakes on corruption, are protected and rewarded and not murdered”. And, of course, to honour her memory.
It can’t be clearer that journalists and whistleblowers have key roles to play in fighting corruption and both groups need recognition, reward and protection. Let’s hope that President Ramaphosa offers this in his formal response to the Zondo recommendations.
Interestingly, the Deokaran coverage came from a mainstream outlet, the country’s biggest by a long way, and their investment in investigative reporters is paying off. Daily Maverick is one of the new-breed of stand-alone sites which had the support of philanthropists and foundations for their investigative team, Scorpio.
These stories reinforce the business case for investigative journalism: investment in producing unique content pays off in so many ways: it builds audience, trust, identity and prestige, separating these outlets from all the run-of-the-mill daily coverage.
*Harber is director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Adjunct Professor of Journalism a Wits University.