Discredited, threatened, attacked: challenges of covering South Africa's election in the digital

In the lead up to South Africa's elections in May, the Electoral Commission of South Africa accredited CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal as an international observer, monitoring press freedom. Quintal found that unlike 1994 - when she covered the violence of the country's first democratic elections - journalists in 2019 cited online harassment and threats as the biggest challenge to their work.

People take pictures with cells phones during the formal announcement of election results in Pretoria on May 11. Journalists covering the election had to contend with online harassment, doxxing, and threats. Pic: AFP/Phill Magakoe

Twenty-five years ago, I quit my first job as a reporter at a Johannesburg daily newspaper because I refused to witness South Africa's first democratic election from behind a desk. It was March 28, 1994 and my editor had stopped me from covering the Shell House massacre, where African National Congress security guards opened fire on members of the rival Inkatha Freedom Party, in a day of violence around Johannesburg that killed over 50 people. It was almost a month before South Africa's first all-race elections and the country was on a knife-edge.

A freelancer on assignment for The Associated Press, Abdul Shariff, had already been killed in connection to his work that year. The Star's chief photographer, Ken Oosterbroek, would also be killed in crossfire days before the election. My editor, a curmudgeon, insisted it was too dangerous for a female journalist and noted we had no "riot" cover. I suspected I would be stuck in the newsroom on election day, so I quit and joined a news agency that did not believe women journalists should be barred from covering "dangerous" assignments.

A quarter of a century later, I returned to Johannesburg for the country's sixth democratic election, this time as an "international observer" accredited by the Electoral Commission of South Africa. I focused on the press freedom environment and whether politicians were adhering to the electoral code of conduct in their interactions with journalists, to ensure free and fair elections.

Unlike the 1990s, which brought a clear risk of physical violence, during this election journalists had to contend with online harassment, cyber-bullying, toxic social media - and fear and uncertainty over whether the digital threats could become physical attacks. As is so often the case in South Africa, it was a court that would ultimately provide journalists with a shot at redress.

Ranjeni Munusamy, an associate editor at Tiso-Blackstar, publisher of the Sunday Times, Sowetan and Business Day, who covered the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s, told me, "Some of the people making the threats now don't know what it's like to live in a war zone and did not witness people being killed because some or other politician declared them as an enemy. They use inflammatory language to fire up their constituencies, but seem not to realize that words have direct consequences."

Munusamy is one of five journalists who deposed to an affidavit in a case that the South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) launched late last year against the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters. It followed a barrage of threats against journalists from the party's leaders and supporters. SANEF initially sought a meeting with the EFF, but its leaders responded, saying their schedule was "very tight and fully booked." SANEF then turned to the Equality Court to ban the party and its leader Julius Malema from "using any platform, including social media, to intimidate, harass, threaten or assault journalists."

Munusmay's affidavit and those of other journalists detailed the threats they'd received and how they were affected, personally and professionally.

In an affidavit, Tiso-Blackstar associate editor Ranjeni Munusamy described the impact online harassment has had professionally and personally. Pic: Handout/CPJ

I met Munusamy in a suburban cafe, less than a month before the May 8 election. Although the EFF vowed to oppose SANEF's case, it had not filed a replying affidavit and the Equality Court lawsuit appeared in limbo. Given the heightened rhetoric and vitriol in the election, the legal stalemate left journalists feeling vulnerable, while politicians and party supporters appeared emboldened.

Some of the journalists with whom I met sought to play down the threats. They insisted they were not "cry-babies." South African journalists, for example, were not being jailed or killed for their work. Their colleagues had it far worse elsewhere in Africa, they said. Younger journalists in particular dismissed the uptick in harassment and intimidation as "normal."

News24 political reporter Tshidi Madia was among them. She joined me for coffee fresh from interviewing Malema. Madia said she too had been threatened and "pushed around" by politicians and supporters of different political persuasions, but "it's part and parcel of the job." She was attacked on social media, but noted that people were also quick to defend her. In a country where patriarchy and chauvinism still flourished, her credibility and journalistic skills had been questioned by some male politicians. And she had been body shamed. "I get mocked for my weight," she told me. But Madia was adamant that she could handle the heat and was not about to complain.

SANEF developed an election portal where journalists could report threats and intimidation online. It received zero complaints, said executive director Kate Skinner. A platform to fight digital disinformation created by the Electoral Commission, in partnership with Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), included a section for journalists to report online harassment, no complaints were filed through the portal, said MMA director William Bird. This did not mean the election period was without problems: some journalists were robbed while on assignment or accosted during live broadcasts.

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams tried unsuccessfully to block media from filming the disruption of an ANC election manifesto launch in the Eastern Cape. She later apologized.

Four days before the election, the Durban offices of the Zulu-language newspaper Iphepha laboHlanga were broken into and equipment stolen, in a move the outlet believes was an attempt to silence it.

The paper was unable to publish, which denied Zulu speakers election coverage in their own language. CPJ is also investigating the death of Thamsanqa Junior Bonase to see whether the killing was related to his journalism.

News24 political reporter Tshidi Madia says she has been threatened, pushed around, and body shamed while covering politics and the election. Pic: Handout/CPJ

The biggest issue however, was that the same social media platforms and messaging apps being used to spread disinformation during elections worldwide were being used to discredit, threaten, and harass the press. Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp were thus weaponized, although Munusamy and other journalists were also singled out for verbal abuse at rallies or in official party statements.

While the EFF weren't the only group harassing journalists, it appeared to have had the biggest impact on the journalists with whom I met.

Referring to the EFF, Munusamy said, "Their main target is people not on the ballot paper. They have made us public enemy number one." Consequently, she no longer covered EFF rallies "as I don't want to create problems or put other journalists at risk" and said she avoided writing about the party. Munusamy added that she was considering getting out of journalism, adding, "I need to get away from the fire."

EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi did not respond to CPJ's request for comment sent via email and messaging app in late June. In a phone call on July 1, Ndlozi said he had not had a chance to discuss the request with the party's leadership, but would get back to CPJ later today. At the time of publication, he had not replied.

The press initially battled the threats alone, and did not get action from the electoral commission. Other Chapter 9 state institutions like the Commission for Gender Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose mandates are to support constitutional democracy, did not step in. The police weren't much help either. Cases opened by journalists against politicians for intimidation and assault, some dating back more than a year, had become "cold cases." Ferial Haffajee, CPJ's 2014 International Press Freedom Award honoree, wrote in the Daily Maverick in March that the EFF appeared to enjoy "virtual impunity".

We met in her Johannesburg home on Workers' Day, eight days before the election.

If anyone would know about harassment, trolling, bot armies and cyber hate, it was Haffajee. The journalist has been harassed by some members of the Muslim community after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad; had to take legal action against the insurers of a now defunct U.K. media relations company, Bell Pottinger, for defamation and breach of privacy after being harassed along with two other editors as part of a disinformation campaign; and been singled out by Malema and the EFF.

The party publicly labeled her and other senior journalists as the "Ramaphosa Defence Force" because of their supposed bias to Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and President Cyril Ramaphosa. She continues to report critically, but acknowledged there were times "that I definitely censor myself."

Haffajee said she was worried about the impact on younger journalists and how cyber-bullying had affected journalists' mental health. "I don't trust the system to protect us," she said.

Ferial Haffajee says she worries about how cyber bullying affects journalists. Pic: Nick Noulton

That toll has been publicized by political reporter Qaanitah Hunter. The 25-year-old Sunday Times journalist went public on Twitter shortly before the election about the impact of being threatened. Linking to a 2018 Vice News article, she tweeted, "Being a journalist is terrible for your mental health...simply because no one speaks about the effect of this on our lives." In September, Hunter was sent an image of gun via text message. The threatening image, which came from a cellphone number used by Meokgo Matuba, secretary-general of the women's league of the ruling ANC, was sent after Hunter had sought comment about an alleged plot by former President Jacob Zuma and his allies to oust his successor Ramaphosa. Matuba later apologized, but denied being the person who sent the photograph.

Hunter told CPJ's Patti Birch fellow Sarah Guinee in May, "Every time I would write a big story about the former president or every time I would write a big story about the internal dynamics of the ruling party, there would be this sort of almost automatic trolling on Twitter, discrediting, using my picture with captions like 'this is what a liar looks like'." ANC national spokesperson Pule Mabe did not respond to CPJ's request for comment sent via messaging apps, email, and phone.

But Hunter, who has also been body shamed, has also received public support. Last month, she tweeted that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng called her and told her to stay strong and keep up the good work. Three weeks later, she won the Nat Nakasa Award for courageous journalism.

Sunday Times journalist Qaanitah Hunter has highlighted the impact online harassment and trolling has on journalists in South Africa. Pic: Handout/CPJ

One of the judges, Joe Thloloe, said that Hunter's courage was "displayed in revealing her own anxieties, in writing and talking and sharing her fears about mental health, in warning us all to find equilibrium in the demanding and volatile jobs we do."

Someone who is prepared to trust the system is the outspoken journalist Karima Brown. The political analyst and host of a radio and television show was doxxed in March by Malema, resulting in an onslaught of graphic messages on social media, as well as her phone through voice and WhatsApp messages, many threatening rape and murder.

She laid a charge of harassment with police and, since the Electoral Code of Conduct was in force, complained to the Electoral Commission.

We met at a popular cafe. Brown was unhappy with the commission and believed it had dragged its feet, but she was not about to give up.

Radio and TV host Karima Brown was doxxed during the election campaign. (Handout)/CPJ

On the eve of elections, she and her lawyers were in the Johannesburg High Court, arguing that Malema and the EFF had contravened the electoral code. She wanted Malema to apologize on Twitter and to pay a penalty of 100,000 South African rand (US$7,000). I sat in the public gallery and watched as the EFF's lawyer attacked Brown, her journalism, and her credibility.

Judgment was reserved until after the election - and the cyber-hate continued.

Later that month, in response to an exposé by Daily Maverick investigative reporter Pauli Van Wyk on alleged graft implicating the EFF, Malema turned to his 2.4 million Twitter followers. He did not mention Van Wyk or her publication by name, but those commenting on the thread took it to be a reference to the journalist's article. The tweet, that some viewed as incitement with its apparent reference to a 1838 massacre of Boers by Zulu King Dingane, read: "We are still cruising nicely, bana ba baloi (children of wizards) are not happy. Go for kill fighters, hit hard ..."

Almost a month after the election, Judge Fiona Dippenaar ruled that Malema and the EFF had violated the Electoral Code of Conduct, and ordered them to pay Brown's legal costs. Their conduct had the effect of "jeopardizing free and fair elections by fostering a chilling effect on robust media reporting," the judge said. But she stopped short of ordering that Malema apologize on Twitter or pay a fine, finding that Brown's conduct and "strident and political tone" had "fueled the flames of discord."

It was nevertheless a victory for Brown and set an important precedent that could stand to offer South African journalists some protection. SANEF's equality court case against the EFF is expected to be heard in August. Should this application also succeed, South African journalists like Haffajee, might well have renewed trust in the system to protect them.

Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, worked as a journalist for more than two decades in South Africa, including as editor of the Mail and Guardian. She is a former secretary-general of the SA National Editors' Forum, edited The Witness and The Mercury, and was presidential correspondent during Nelson Mandela's term as South Africa's first democratically elected president. Follow her on Twitter @angelaquintal.

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