Some of the best stories I’ve worked on arrived late at night, by fax. I’d get a call, a voice on the other side asking, “Are you still at work? Are you standing at the fax machine?”
I’d get up and walk over to the fax. “I’m here,” I’d say. The voice on the other side would say, “I’m pressing Ã¢Â€Â˜send’.” The machine would come to life and a spit out a document, page by page, each marked “Top Secret”.
One afternoon, soon after the National Intelligence Service had been transformed into the National Intelligence Agency, I received a call. The agent was fresh out of training, eager to make an impression. Still believing what he had been taught, that South Africa had emerged from a dark period, a time when the security forces were used to oppress the people. That he now served a people protected by a constitution, and defended them.
When he thought he had cracked a case, an investigation into the causes of taxi violence in Pretoria, he wanted to protect the people. His bosses were sitting on his report, and he wanted someone to pressure them into taking action – and give him credit for the sterling work he had done.
He asked how he could get his document to me, and I said the normal procedure was to go to the nearest Postnet and fax it from there.
His first page came slowly through the newsroom’s fax machine – the first thing I saw was the heading on top, “TOP SECRET”. And then, as the page dropped onto the feeder, I saw, typed at the bottom, “BOTTOM SECRET”. It had been typed at the bottom of each and every page.
I wish I had kept it – a colleague and I used to dream of publishing a best-selling non-fiction book of the weird and wonderful documents which arrived on our newsroom fax machine, we were going to call it “Bottom Secret”.
Nowadays, of course, these documents no longer arrive by fax (just in case someone’s thinking about monitoring our lines).
I’ve worked among, with and against spooks my entire career. I’ve worked in two newsrooms where colleagues were paid agents of an intelligence agency.
I’ve covered politics most of my career – and political journalists and spooks work very closely together, sometimes well and sometimes with disastrous effect.
Not every top secret document you get from a spook is worth reporting. The one marked “BOTTOM SECRET” was a sordid tale of extramarital sex, perhaps the comrade in the NIA should have sent it to the tabloids. Maybe he did.
Then you get documents like Special Browse Mole, constructed by a private intelligence agency. Not the the best piece of work I’ve ever seen, but one always suspects there may be a kernel of truth hidden among the speculation and fabrication.
Sometimes journalists get top secret documents and believe – and inform their readers – that there must be a kernel of truth in it, why else would an agency be investigating this person? All they do is phone the agency to confirm that there is an investigation, and then publish the contents of the documents. The spooks like this kind of reporting, it helps them turn screws.
Journalists are often spooks’ sources. I used to get invited to embassy functions – very often – and would get snared by a so-called “cultural attachÃƒÂ©”, who never spoke about music, theatre or art, but asked many questions about the “political situation in the country”. I’d leave thinking why is it that I never get to ask any questions, like “what is it exactly that you do here at the embassy?”
If I was given five years for every top secret document I saw or used in my career – as is being suggested by the Protection of Information Bill now before Parliament – I’d probably die in prison.
And if the bill becomes law, there will be a significant impact on freedom of expression in South Africa. Government wants the right to classify anything it likes as “top secret”, without independent oversight, and journalists will not be able to use “public interest” as a defence when they expose government corruption, ineptitude – or even, successes – from classified documents.
Despite the outrage voiced in parliament by the media in public submissions on the bill, it may well be passed in Parliament. But it might not survive a Constitutional Court challenge, as it purports to limit media freedom “in the pursuit of justice and democracy!”