Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Even if you have no hidden agenda, it is quite a feat to accurately and comprehensively summarise an intricate report of a commission of inquiry that extended over a few years.
So it is perhaps no surprise that more than a month after President Jacob Zuma read out his short summarised version of the 646-page Farlam report on the Marikana massacre, new revelations continue to emerge.
But had retired Judge Ian Farlam been mandated to deliver the findings himself, as would be the case in a court judgment, we may have got off to a slightly less contested start. Gaps and misinterpretations have arisen from Zuma’s summation, thus aggravating understandable anger, especially that the executive had been let off the hook.
One of the crucial gems buried in the fine print is the commission’s finding that the “McCann principle” is part of our law, despite the SA Police Service’s contention that it is not. The McCann principle, according to the commission, “requires the planners of policing operations, where force may possibly be used, to plan and command the operations in such a way as to minimise the risk that lethal force will be used.”
It is this critical principle that the commission found had “been breached” due to the “defective nature” of the plan that was carried out and which led to the deaths of 34 miners on August 16 three years ago. This plan was prepared “in haste” without the benefit of input from the Public Order Police unit. It was not approved by the full Joint Operational Committee and not subjected to a challenge process. “It carried with it a substantially heightened risk of bloodshed,” the commission found.
The upshot of this finding, according to Accountability Now director Paul Hoffman who shone a light on its significance and other fundamental aspects in an article last week, is that a breach of the McCann principle is a sufficient basis for civil liability. In effect, the state would have no valid defence “to the merits of claims for damages arising out of the killing or injuring of miners in Marikana”.
Hoffman advises the state to accept civil liability and tender reasonable damages to victims without delay.
If not, we will be faced with protracted and costly legal battles and unacceptable extended pain and suffering for the families and victims of those killed and injured at Marikana.
Zuma described events at Marikana as a “horrendous tragedy”. Yet he has come under fire for a sluggish start, with apparent inaction so far over the recommendations that he himself outlined in his June 25 summary. Besides dealing with these, he also needs to act on his blindspots. He should do the right thing by accepting civil liability on behalf of the state and fast-track the process of compensating the hundreds of victims who are currently agonisingly preparing civil law suits against the state.
Another blindspot is the fact that the commission had not cleared the executive entirely. The commission had an open finding regarding police minister Nathi Mthethwa and was unable to find positively in his favour due to lack of evidence. The report points to a mysteriously missing memory stick and Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega being “distinctly evasive and unhelpful” during attempts to get her to answer questions about the role Mthethwa played .
These revelations, which arise from a close reading of the report, are likely to be welcomed by the commissioners, who have been dodging bullets of a different kind in the past month. Unsatisfying as the outcome may be, their task was to delve, not to be arbitrators or prosecutors. It is up to Zuma to urgently pick up where they left off in the interests of the families - and the public.
This article first appeared in Media 24 print and online titles. City Press
Sunday, August 2, 2015
Live tweets of Omar Al-Bashir’s presidential plane taking off from Waterkloof airforce base were a memorable jaw-dropping moment on social media. They were posted around the same time as government lawyers were assuring a panel of judges that the Sudanese president was still in the country in compliance with a court order.
Well-connected Media 24 reporter Erika Gibson had teamed up with plane spotters at various places early on Monday morning. Relying on Gibson’s insider wherewithal as a specialist military reporter, photographer Alet Pretorius was dispatched to Fort Klapperkop “with a lens the size of a cannon” to a little hill on the other side of the highway from the infamous base. Gibson kept tabs “on the right people at the right spots” from her home, coordinating the operation the modern way - with her cell-phone. Their eyes transfixed on activity at the infamous airstrip, the rest of the media were far away, crammed into a court room in Pretoria.
The Monday morning tweets of Al-Bashir’s convoy and his great escape spread around the globe. They made a mockery of the government, which finally admitted about four hours later that the Sudanese President had left the country.
This modern media moment summed up the principles of old fashioned journalism – specialist reporting, not following the crowd and breaking a leg to be in the right place when the shit hits the fan. Sometimes this means taking costly chances, like going on a fishing expedition and risking coming home without a big catch.
These principles ought to be ring-fenced as newsrooms across the globe shrink under the ever-watchful eye of powerful bean-counters who are concerned about profit margins over all else. As newsrooms have contracted and specialist reporters have become rarer, so too has there been a proliferation of public relations companies and masters of spin. In the US, there are about three PR agents to every journalist, and they are “better equipped and better financed”, according to a recent report in the Guardian.
Hoping to inveigle their way into the vacuum, PRs are in the business of setting selective agendas and putting a gloss over impropriety. That is why pesky reporters need to be on the scene to observe for themselves, to seek balance and counter the sophisticated spin that can land up as a very distorted first draft of history.
Old-fashioned journalistic principles also need to be nurtured at parliament, a hotbed of activity these days. This means covering the rowdy parliamentary sittings from the upstairs gallery, not the parliamentary television channel in Johannesburg. It means taking the oversight work of portfolio committee meetings seriously, though with 25 portfolio committees sitting at any one time, journalists are forced to make agonising choices about what to cover and what to overlook.
A sizeable team from parliamentary communication services offer a media service. But judging from many of the releases they bash out, you could be misled into believing that these multi-party meetings are harmonious affairs when in fact robust dissent is usually the order of the day. Their reports are generally rubberstamped by committee chairs, hence they reflect the views of the ANC majority, not the committee per se.
Perhaps this is why the DA – which operates a relentless 24-hour PR machine – often send their own scribes to committee meetings to “cover” events and put their own spin on proceedings. The ANC has recently stepped up its media game, though their releases are all too often just another version of the parliamentary communication service releases.
All these services have a role, but they cannot perform a watchdog role to ensure that those in power are held accountable. They cannot replace the real deal - actual bums on reporters’ seats at committee meetings, which are the engine rooms of parliament and play a crucial oversight role to those in power.
In the same way, news teams should not be held back from taking the time out to dig for dirt and to drift off from the pack, just as Gibson - and Pretorius - did so splendidly this week.
This was first published by Media 24 on June 23. http://www.news24.com/Opinions/When-good-journalism-defeats-bad-leadership-20150619
And on Mediaonline: http://themediaonline.co.za/2015/06/when-good-journalism-defeats-bad-leadership/