Murray Hunter is a media consultant and digital rights advocate; he was previously a coordinator of the Right2Know Campaign in South Africa, and the author of a children’s book about digital surveillance. Hunter writes here for the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, where he was acting advocacy coordinator in February and March 2020.
There is no doubt that an investigative media outfit with an advocacy programme may raise eyebrows. But amaBhungane has scored major wins for transparency and free speech.
In early March 2020, halfway through a two-month ‘caretaker’ stint as the advocacy coordinator for the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, I received a wonderful document in an email from our lawyers. It was a two-page court order – the details of which I’ll come to, because they tell an important story about amaBhungane’s advocacy work.
AmaBhungane is known for its long-form investigations of money, politics, and abuse of power in South Africa. This dogged approach – taking weeks, months or even years to chase down a story – has resulted in major exposés over the years, and more than a few awards. In 2019 for example, the group was part of a consortium of news organisations that received the Global Shining Light Award for the #GuptaLeaks investigation into the sprawling network of corruption surrounding South Africa’s former president.
What many people don’t realise is that the organisation also hosts an advocacy programme, which adopts the same tenacious approach to slowly push for reforms in policy and law in order to improve the climate for journalism itself. Through its unique approach to advocacy, a staff member – part researcher, part policy wonk, part campaigner – works (mostly on a parallel track to amaBhungane’s investigators) to secure the information rights that are the lifeblood of investigative journalism.
In South Africa, access to information and freedom of expression are to a large extent protected in law; but bureaucrats, politicians, and private firms often flout the rules all the same.
Over the years, amaBhugane’s programme has blossomed into an impressive portfolio of work, including submissions on legislative amendments (four last year), access-to-information requests (13 in 2019) and share-register inquiries (more than 40 last year), as well as strategic litigation on media-freedom issues (four active cases at the moment). You can access our advocacy work and our legal documents via our Virtual Library.
It is also important to understand what the programme isn’t: amaBhungane does not do ‘advocacy journalism’ , or advocacy about its journalism. Many who read amaBhungane’s investigations into the corruption of former president Jacob Zuma organised protest marches calling for his resignation – but amaBhungane did not join them.
The slow road to transparency
Much of the programme’s work is as unglamorous as the creature for which amaBhungane is named – ibhungane, the dung beetle.
Like many of their global counterparts, amaBhungane’s journalists use freedom of information requests as part of their investigative toolkit. But in a climate where close to two-thirds of information requests are refused or simply ignored, many requests drag on long after any story has been filed.
Someone has to follow that process, to work the phones, to ensure recalcitrant officials eventually file a response; and should the response not be positive, someone must draft the appeal. By having a designated advocacy coordinator who is not tied to conventional newsroom duties, amaBhungane is able to pursue information requests not only in service to a story, but in pursuit of the principle of transparency itself.
This brings me back to the court order that landed in my inbox in March. Since 2015, amaBhungane has been trying to get details about coal-mining rights nationally. It started with an information request, which was refused. AmaBhungane filed an administrative appeal, which succeeded; but the documents never arrived.
In 2017 a court ordered that amaBhungane should get the documents. Still they didn’t come. Finally, in late 2019, a judge ruled that the officials responsible were in contempt of court. At long last, in March, our lawyers received a copy of that contempt order, which directed those two officials to hand over the documents or pay R100 000 in fines. Personally.
The outbreak of Covid-19 may have bought those officials just a bit more time; and perhaps if those documents eventually arrive, they won’t ever make it into a story. But the next journalist who calls up the mining department asking for information may find a much more thoughtful official on the other end of the phone. It took five years to happen, but like I said: long-form.
Policy fights big and small
Some of amaBhungane’s advocacy work is the stuff of major, history-making, precedent. Its current Constitutional Court challenge to South Africa’s surveillance law, for example, seeks to overturn years of abuse and secrecy in the state’s spying machinery, after the revelation that state spies had bugged the phone of Sam Sole, one of our managing partners.
If the organisation can uphold the landmark victory it won in the lower courts, it will result in major privacy reforms to protect investigative reporters and the public at large.
But most of amaBhungane’s advocacy work takes place out of sight, and without fanfare – wonkish submissions to policy processes in Parliament, asking for a secrecy clause to be struck from an energy bill, say, or proposing better transparency provisions in party-funding regulation.
All this is done without compromising its journalism. The advocacy work and the investigative work run parallel to each other, though there is not the hard ‘firewall’ that one hears about at the news and opinions operations at The New York Times, for example. We talk and keep one another updated.
In the very early days of amaBhungane, the advocacy work was a part-time role; our first advocacy coordinator split her time between advocacy and reporting. It was an unhappy arrangement which worked to the detriment of both.
By having a dedicated advocacy coordinator, the organisation can ring fence both the work (so that amaBhungane’s journalists do not have to involve themselves in lobbying and campaigning) and the workload (so that the journalists can get on with, well… journalism).
But the organisation and its journalists are especially sensitive to the risk of being seen as partisan – even more so after the emergence of coordinated disinformation and smear campaigns against amaBhungane and other media organisations, which started in the lead-up to the #GuptaLeaks reports and never really went away.
It’s ironic that amaBhungane, with its declared advocacy programme, could be seen as partisan and campaigning, when many of South Africa’s commercial newsrooms appear to have been drawn into messy factional wars that have led to an industry-wide ethics inquiry.
I’ve worked alongside amaBhungane’s advocacy programme for nearly a decade as an information-rights activist, and have seen the organisation prove its integrity over and over again.
If anything, my sense is that the organisation’s reluctance to be seen as ‘crusading’ creates a silence about its advocacy work, in which Twitter trolls are more than happy to craft their own narratives.
The global crises sparked by Covid-19 suggest that advocacy for journalism is more important than ever. For starters, the pandemic has brought new obstacles to the flow of information.
For example, despite strong legal protections for the principle of open justice, the pandemic has led to serious transparency challenges in South Africa’s court systems. Access to court records was unreliable even before Covid-19 restriction; now, it is even more so.
As court hearings have moved to video call platforms, Cherese Thakur (who succeeded me as amaBhungane’s advocacy coordinator) has been haunting the phones and inboxes of court officials to try and get the schedules of court hearings published online ahead of time, as a basic condition for ensuring court processes remain open.
Out in the streets, in the chaotic weeks following South Africa’s ‘lockdown’, journalists documented appalling brutality by police and soldiers sent out to enforce it; and in several instances were harassed, stopped from filming, and even fired at with rubber bullets.
But surely the greatest crisis for journalism in this moment is economic; and media advocacy to address the economic devastation being felt in newsrooms is needed urgently. Though many have risen to meet the reporting challenge of our time, many may not survive it.
Even before the pandemic, it already seemed unlikely that mainstream journalistic outlets would ‘innovate’ their way out of the harsh financial climate without major regulatory interventions: to provide public grants to media organisations, give tax credits to companies that buy ads or levy taxes off the tech giants, or any manner of other policy response.
AmaBhungane’s advocacy work has yet to venture into this space – although SANEF, the South African National Editors’ Forum, has initiated research into the policy questions in recent years.
If ever there was a role for advocacy work in support of journalism, this is it.
On Thursday, 4 February 2021, the Constitutional Court handed down a decision in South Africa which has already received worldwide acclaim. It found in favour of amaBhungane in a landmark case involving the collision between the right to privacy and the right of the state to engage in surveillance.
The court ruled that the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (Rica) is unconstitutional because it did not provide sufficient safeguards to protect the privacy of citizens. It also confirmed that bulk surveillance is unlawful in South Africa.
Edward Snowden responded to the high court judgment in this case in a tweet, simply saying “Wow”.
We should all have the same reaction to the decision of the Constitutional Court. At last, the country’s surveillance laws will have to take privacy rights seriously.
1 March 2021