Intimidating journalists: The death of Suna Venter

What the death of one South African journalist may reveal about the intimidation facing sections of the media.

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Former SABC producer Suna Venter died from stress cardiomyopathy at the end of June 2017 after she was the target of a campaign of threats and intimidation [Shayne Robinson/Al Jazeera]

Cape Town, South Africa – As a nine-year-old, Suna Venter used to plead with her mother to let her skip school so she could watch coverage of the first Iraq War on the news.

“She was absolutely fascinated by the people on the fringes of the war, the children especially who were impacted by wars, and fascinated by the fact that this could be publicised, televised and so on,” her father, Philip, remembers.

Venter had found her calling: she was set on becoming a journalist.

At the age of 24 Venter would go on to become a current affairs journalist and producer for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the state-owned public broadcaster.

She reported from the front lines in Gaza, Libya and Syria.

Venter’s father says she was committed to her job, and to “good journalism – journalism with integrity,” to the point of obsession.

“We used to worry about her working too hard, but we would never have asked her to stop. She wouldn’t have taken our advice in any case. The SABC was her life,” he says.

But Venter’s passion for her work allegedly came to play a role in her sudden death at the end of June 2017, aged 32.

According to veteran SABC journalist and media ombudsman George Claassens, Venter’s death should be seen as a red flag signalling a growing onslaught against the country’s journalists, as well as a reminder that South Africa’s hard won media freedom, a pillar of its fledgling democracy, should “never be taken for granted”.

Broken Heart Syndrome

Venter was suspended from the SABC in 2016 for disagreeing with orders to not cover anti-government and anti-media censorship protests that were taking place outside the SABC’s offices in Cape Town. 

Within weeks, Venter and seven other SABC employees, who together came to be known as the SABC 8, had been sacked by the broadcaster for their public defiance of its policies – policies Classens says hark back to the apartheid era, when the SABC was “interfered with to the point where it was essentially the government mouthpiece” of the authoritarian and segregationist National Party. 

Venter and three of her SABC colleagues took their dismissal to South Africa’s Labour Court, where it was ruled that they’d been unfairly and unlawfully dismissed and had to be reinstated. But Venter, seen as leading the charge against the SABC, soon began to receive anonymous death threats.

Venter’s family claim that her flat was broken into multiple times; the tyres on her car were slashed; she was allegedly assaulted on three separate occasions, shot at, and once even abducted.

Foeta Krige, Venter’s senior producer at SABC for eight years and another member of the SABC 8, remembers that Venter would often stay with him and his family because she was scared to be at her own home, where she lived alone. On one occasion, Krige says that Venter got into her car outside his house in the morning to find that her brake cables had been cut.

Venter’s father Philip says that during this period the family struggled to sleep at night: “We checked her Facebook every hour to see whether she was still alive. It was a scary and traumatic experience. I think the trauma that she experienced must have been absolutely devastating.”

Philip Venter says that this trauma undoubtedly contributed to his daughter being diagnosed with stress cardiomyopathy earlier this year. Also known as Broken Heart Syndrome, stress cardiomyopathy can cause rapid and severe heart muscle weakness. Philip Venter believes this condition ultimately claimed his daughter’s life.

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kanyago maintains that while Suna Venter’s passing was a “terrible loss”, at no stage has the intimidation that she faced, nor her death, “been linked to the SABC.”

An environment of fear and intimidation

Like Venter, Krige says he also received “about 13 or 14” death threats after the SABC 8 applied to South Africa’s Constitutional Court to have the SABC’s refusal to air protest footage declared unconstitutional in September 2016. He says he was labelled a “traitor” and a “liar” and that threats were also directed at his family.

But Krige also describes an atmosphere of fear that went far beyond him and the other members of the SABC 8 and which he says infiltrated every echelon of the public broadcaster, particularly under the stewardship of former executive Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Motsoeneng’s allegedly strong ties to South African President Jacob Zuma were once said by another SABC journalist, Lukhanyo Calata, to be an “open secret”. Motsoeneng could not be reached for comment for this story, but has repeatedly denied such claims.

According to Krige: “For such a long time, there was this absolute fear … It’s an atmosphere that I cannot describe to you. It’s people standing in little corners, whispering, people avoiding eye contact, people who will stop talking when you pass them, people glancing at the roof to see if there are hidden microphones or cameras. It was really a toxic environment of fear and intimidation.”

Following an internal disciplinary hearing in June this year, Motsoeneng was found guilty of bringing the public broadcaster into disrepute and an interim board was appointed. SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago says: “The interim board wants to make absolutely sure that journalists are given the space to do their work freely. They are taking a very proactive approach to ensure that the working environment is good.”

But while Krige says that there have been improvements at the SABC within the past two months, he reiterates the widespread concerns in the South African media industry that there is an increasingly “orchestrated effort” to intimidate local journalists, and that this extends far beyond the public broadcaster.

Hired thugs?

Krige’s assertion has been most brazenly illustrated by the role of radical activist group Black First Land First (BLF), who have been responsible for a number of acts of harassment and intimidation against journalists who they claim are intentionally perpetuating racist media agendas through selective coverage.

This came to a head on the day of Venter’s death, when the BLF picketed outside the private residence of Peter Bruce, a columnist for Business Day newspaper and editor-at-large of Tiso Blackstar, a major South African private media corporation.

South African political journalist Karima Brown, a former colleague of Bruce’s when she was political editor at Business Day, says that she was physically assaulted and threatened by a female member of BLF when she arrived at Bruce’s house to contest the picket; she has since laid charges against the alleged assailant.

More recently on Monday, July 17, investigative journalist Micah Reddy also gave a statement describing how he’d been assaulted by members of BLF after a televised panel debate on fake news at Shine Studios in Johannesburg.

On July 27, the BLF disrupted a Johannesburg town hall event hosted by the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, where Reddy is employed. A statement on amaBhungane’s website the following day said that BLF “physically threatened participants and members of the public”.

BLF spokesperson Zanele Lwana dismissed such claims, telling Al Jazeera: “The BLF does not promote racism, intimidation, harassment, assault against anyone. That is not the conduct of our movement.”

However, referring to the alleged incidents involving Reddy and Brown, she added: “You cannot provoke us and create situations where there is going to be an altercation, then when we respond to your insults you go and cry to the media.”

Brown says BLF’s members are “hired thugs” who enjoy political support from “the highest office in the land,” while chair of the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), Mahlatse Gallens, points out that BLF has specifically targeted editors from publications that have exposed high-level government corruption.

Although the ruling African National Congress (ANC) declined to comment on Brown’s and Gallens’ claims for this article despite repeated requests, at a communications briefing during the ANC National Policy Conference on July 5, Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu condemned the actions of BLF against journalists. He added that the ANC has always fought for media freedom and will continue to do so.

Brown, however, argues that although the ruling party made “a big song and dance of coming out in support of us and condemning the BLF, the president in whose name this is being done has said nothing”.

Lwana denies that there is any direct government support for BLF, but a number of recent articles in the South African press have also linked the group to the controversial Gupta family, Indian expatriate business tycoons who enjoy a favourable relationship with Jacob Zuma and some other members of parliament.

The Guptas have been mired in corruption scandals since a series of hundreds of thousands of emails was leaked to South African media outlets including the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, as well as Media24 and the Daily Maverick. Branko Brkic, editor of the Daily Maverick, says that he had beefed up armed security at the popular news site’s Cape Town offices after it received the leaked emails.

Such measures are not isolated. In April, Sunday Times investigative journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika and his family were put under 24-hour protection after the paper received what it called “credible information” that wa Afrika’s life was in imminent danger due to his coverage of apparent corruption at the parastatal energy provider, Eskom.

City Press investigative journalist Sipho Masondo and his family experienced similar threats following his investigations into corruption at the Department of Water and Sanitation. Masondo says he declined a total of 3.5 million rand (more than $250,000) offered to him in bribes by representatives of the department to drop his investigation.

The creeping threat of authoritarianism

For wa Afrika, who has won more than 20 awards for his investigative journalism over almost as many years, the death threats are nothing new. But he believes the overall threat to journalists in South Africa is “undoubtedly getting worse,” and he points to the correlation with some members of parliament who have also been receiving death threats for speaking out against the Zuma faction of an increasingly fragmented and controversy-laden ANC.

Prominent media commentator and columnist Eusebius McKaiser shares wa Afrika’s belief in the overlap between increasing contestation in South African political arenas and encroachments on journalists and media freedom.

“These attempts to undermine journalists … it’s all part of the factional battles inside the ANC in the first instance and then in society at large. It is a battle for resources and journalists are seen as a threat to those who wish to loot, and that’s really the motive behind it,” McKaiser says.

He adds that encroachments on media freedom should be seen as a serious risk to the overall health of South Africa’s fledgling democracy. “Where authoritarian society starts they come first for radio stations, then for the rest of the media, and then you have the average Joe, civil and political, and socio economic rights being trampled on.”

Gallens echoes McKaiser’s sense that the current encroachment on media freedom is part of a wider onslaught against crucial democratic institutions in South Africa.

“We know the painful past that we come from in terms of apartheid,” Gallens says, “and the vision going forward was that we needed these kinds of institutions to hold those in authority accountable. In response to the work that these democratic institutions are doing, those that are on the wrong side have now taken to denigrating and attacking [them].”

The ANC did not respond to multiple requests from Al Jazeera for comment on this.

South Africa has long been viewed as a shining example of a robust free press; the role journalists played in opening up some of the cracks in the authoritarian apartheid regime is well documented. But the country has slumped in press freedom indexes in the past few years.

The death of Suna Venter has come to serve as a symbol of the human cost of this new trend. But although her father Philip is acutely aware of this, he says the family doesn’t want to waste its energy apportioning blame or harbouring anger. They’d rather focus on the positives.

“Nothing ever came between us as a family, not at all,” he remembers. “In fact, just this morning my wife and I told each other we’re so glad we supported [Suna] all the time in everything she did. How would we have felt today if we hadn’t done that?”

Source: Al Jazeera