Street violence is a symptom of state breakdown. The media, like other players, must seek to restore sense to democratic debate.
As the country makes its run-up to elections, journalists are literally in the firing line. There is a strong likelihood that violence on the streets will increase while intimidation of the media will never be far behind. Reporters are bracing themselves for a rough time. But as some TV journalists said in a workshop on election reporting last week, it’s exciting and addictive – one wants to be where the action is.
Well and good. Or maybe not so well and not so good. Instant replays of riots and conflagrations may do wonders for the ratings but (and this is longstanding criticism of wham-bam news) it doesn’t deepen debate beyond the anguish of the moment.
Media are not just observers, they are participants. They frame the news and define the seeming realities of human existence in our corner of the world. These may seem like realities because words and images give them tangible form. How trustworthy is the picture we are getting?
To me it appears that the media have a positioning problem that is not directly about the professionalism – or lack of it – of individual journalists. Most of the reports we get from frontline journalists are factual, at least in the sense that reporting is about the search for truth through a welter of conflicting facts. The truth is never actually known and always unfolding.
The position media have reached puts them at their own flaming crossroads. As participants who shape voter awareness, are we now so disillusioned with the obfuscation and claptrap emanating from government that we are going to trust the victims and line up with the street crowds?
“Trust the victims” is a phrase I learnt from a famous American journalist, David Halberstam, who visited Rhodes University in the late 1970s. At that time I was a lowly graduate assistant in the department of journalism, burning to know how best to report the massacre of innocents by security forces without actually becoming one of those victims myself.
In Johannesburg, as a reporter for The Star, I had been present at the very outset of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976. Weeks of choking smoke and shootings later, I travelled into Tembisa (held by students) in the boot of a car, terrified that either the police or the students would discover me.
They didn’t, but neither could I get out of the boot to do what I was there for – report the student side of things. A black Star photographer who shall remain unnamed was driving the vehicle and was possibly more terrified than I was that he would be treated as an impimpi (informer) and necklaced if I were discovered.
Fierce yelling accompanied the banging and rocking of the car as we drove through student ranks. “Stay where you are,” shouted my companion, “we’re getting out of here!” We came home empty handed with story only about ourselves, which the paper refused to publish for fear that it would lead to the searching and wrecking of staff vehicles.
Frontline journalists are always at risk, as the sorry toll of fatalities in the line of duty attests. I had seen my partner in coverage, Harry Mashabela, arrested, detained and released with a permanently bent neck thanks to Special Branch interrogation methods.
I fled to Grahamstown after a warning from Harry’s relatives that the cops were looking for me. Police co-ordination was not all that hot in those days and I seem to have slipped under the radar. Professor Tony Giffard gave me a post and set me loose on impressionable minds; what we needed was a formula for frontline coverage. You couldn’t trust what the cops said about security operations but then activists on the other side tended to be ideological, which made quoting them difficult.
“Trust the victims” said former New York Times war correspondent Halberstam in an Honours class seminar. He knew what he was talking about. He was the leading investigative reporter who exposed the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. An American detachment, Charlie Company, which had lost 28 of its own men in a few days of search-and-destroy in the steamy guerrilla-infested marshlands, walked into a village and mowed down between 347 and 504 people.
The US Army lied about it while the North Vietnamese enemy, who didn’t have all the facts, turned the story into political rhetoric.
So the people to ask were the survivors, in that village and others. That is what Halberstam did, courageously and with a sense that there was no middle ground, only the atrocity itself. As a recent academic analysis (2008) said, in summary:
Examination of the events reveals that the perpetrators and their commanders took various actions that inhibited outrage from the unprovoked killing of civilians. These actions can be classified into five methods: covering up evidence; devaluing the victims; reinterpreting the episode as a military victory; setting up superficial investigations that gave the appearance of justice; and intimidating those who might speak out. These are the same five methods regularly used by perpetrators to inhibit outrage from other types of injustices.
The cover-up “inhibited outrage” in the US. The methods of doing so remain popular with the authorities today, as we all know from getting the run-around when asking frank questions. We are left gatvol and smarting. Our outrage as journalists is not at all inhibited; but the general public who are not on the scene are less likely to flame up as we do over a dop later.
And therein lies the problem. To witness the victimisation ourselves and hear the lies that follow is to feel that the electorate and the world must be told, bluntly, how bad things are out there on the streets. In the festering townships. In the shacklands that just keep on growing.
Do we then become propagandists for the bloodied protestors, the silenced and the marginalised, the women and children who take the brunt of the male anger that should be directed elsewhere? Are we pro-poor?
South Africa’s police minister Nathi Mthethwa tells us, quite rightly, that the police are under siege and “We have never had such a massive spate of violence in the country, where a small group of police at a satellite station find themselves under siege and surrounded by a vicious angry mob”.
Who are the victims now? And what happened to that quaint old notion of journalistic objectivity that we dispensed with at some time between 1976 and the present?
This question loomed large for me as I facilitated a workshop on Election Reporting for the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, in Johannesburg a week ago. Director Michael Schmidt came and told us about the amazing IAJ plan to prepare journos for election violence. Courses will cover personal safety, first aid, ducking and diving behind vehicles, the laws of war, and how to use your peripheral vision not to get killed on the job.
From someone who has had a lot to do with the adventure industry in my other life as a river rafter, I can appreciate the physicality of all this. We say that certain rapids are known risk sites. Elections in South Africa today are producing a rich collection of such risk sites.
We should be concerned about the physical risks but even more the professional ones. In a blog on the “democratic disconnect” between the formal election process and the service-delivery mayhem in our public places, I wrote that the media are looking compromised.
The structures of the state are crumbling under a weight of corruption and incompetence, undermining faith in democratic institutions. One of these institutions is the Fourth Estate, the media as watchdog on government (and on corporates).
Those who stand at the crossroads between conflicting parties are also in the crosshairs and can be the first victims.
Conflict at election time is not simply about parties versus each other or communities versus authorities. There are layers of activism pulsing with energy, as well as complex interactions between organised groups, gangsters, businesses, church groups, local authorities and security heads, and national figures in government or out of it.
Your sources may be boxers or fashion models, police snitches, citizen journalists with cellphones, spaza shop owners with networks of information, or frightened councillors. They make up the mosaic of hopes and fears surrounding the voting to come. A journalist on the ground seeking to understand the issues needs to tap into the human experiences that shape the political landscape.
By the time conflict breaks the surface it leads to a hardening of positions. Demonstrators carry out symbolic acts like attacks on the homes of those thought to be at odds with community sentiment. It’s relatively easy to photograph these displays but much harder to report the substance of what is making people angry.
But that’s what the act of reporting should aim to reveal, amid the incoherent outbursts of protestors and the denialism of those being held accountable. Nobody is fully right or wrong; everybody including reporters, is involved. Yet the story is frequently reduced to a simple demos-versus-authorities depiction for the nightly news.
Professionalism demands more than that and it does require that journalists on the scene educate their own editors about responsible coverage.
Media reflect what is going on in the streets but seem to lack powers of reflection on where this is leading. Journalists who crusade for the victims of the system will always be around, and rightly so. Strikes and demonstrations are newsworthy and make good copy, but in the end public spectacle can never be a substitute for policy deliberation by voters.
Outrage is important for debate, but while victims must be heard they don’t deliver solutions.
Graeme Addison is a well known media trainer and consultant, journalist, author and a former Professor of Communication at the University of North West.
IMAGE: A protest by the Durban shack dwellers’ organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo / Wikimedia Creative Commons