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Supporting independent media in South Africa

By Luminate

Why we invested in amaBhungane and Media Monitoring Africa

The story of political corruption in South Africa is an old one, which started long before the first democratic elections in 1994, yet the recent scandal of ‘state capture’ rattled the foundations of this young democracy to its very core. Independent media has been key to unraveling what happened and how it happened, and calling for those responsible to be held to account. At Luminate, our work in independent media is focused on defending and supporting a vibrant free press that holds those in power to account. That is why we are proud to announce our support for two organisations in South Africa that are doing exemplary work in pursuit of truth-telling, accountability, and preserving a vibrant press - amaBhungane and Media Monitoring Africa.  

AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism - fighting for media freedom and accountability

AmaBhungane is a non-profit investigative journalism organisation that works to promote a free, capable media and an open, accountable, just democracy. It does so by pursuing the best practice of investigative journalism, helping other journalists do the same, and advocating for the information rights that are the lifeblood of their field.

Together with the Daily Maverick news site, amaBhungane secured from whistleblowers in 2017 the #GuptaLeaks, a large trove of emails from within the heart of a family operation that had ‘captured’ key institutions of the South African state.

Their exposés showed how the Gupta family had used its hold on then-president Jacob Zuma, whose son it partnered with in business, to win state contracts and command billions of rands in ‘commissions’ from others who wanted to do business with the state.

The resultant outcry, civil society action and changes within the ruling party led to Zuma being ousted in February 2018.

AmaBhungane’s stories unraveled money flows across multiple jurisdictions and a web of auditors, politicians and civil servants who were complicit in ‘state capture’. Multinational consulting and IT firms, exposed for colluding with the Guptas and their associates to win contracts, issued public apologies, restructured and repaid money. A London-based reputation-management firm collapsed. Yet more firms are facing lawsuits from state entities to repay illicit gains. The Guptas have fled to Dubai.

The Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture has heard groundbreaking evidence about the entrenchment of corruption in the South African state and private sector.

AmaBhungane’s work on exposing ‘state capture’ builds on its work that started in 2010, when it was associated with the Mail & Guardian newspaper, where it traced the business interests of President Jacob Zuma’s family.

AmaBhungane went on to report award-winning stories, including Zuma’s use of public funds on upgrading his private estate at Nkandla; corruption in the SA Revenue Service; exploring South Africa’s long and difficult history of land expropriation; and corporate crime that cost investors billions. This important work is being done in an environment where media organisations around the world are grappling with finding models to be financially sustainable and to support investigative journalism.  

To address this challenge, amaBhungane has pioneered a new way of doing investigative journalism in the South African context using a non-profit model and building a strong base of crowdfunding ‘amaB supporters’. As they see it, “in a purely commercial environment, investigative journalism often struggles to compete with instantly gratifying, fast-food journalism - the kind that sells papers today but wraps fish tomorrow.”

Even with promising progress in their new model for sustainability, many external pressures remain that challenge journalists’ ability to do their work. Luminate’s grant of $215,000 over two years will go towards helping to alleviate some of this pressure as amaBhungane continues to play a broader role in fighting for media freedom and accountability.

Media Monitoring Africa - promoting a responsible, quality media

It is clear that South Africa sits at a critical juncture. Its democracy will either be irrevocably weakened by the events of the past ten years, or citizens and groups will continue to rally to strengthen necessary institutions and secure a vibrant democracy. To the extent that independent media remains a bulwark, it is important to support efforts to maintain a strong media eco-system in South Africa.

Yet, the media ecosystem in South Africa continues to face significant challenges. In addition to facing the same challenges as global media organisations in the digital age, (digital disruption, loss of advertising revenue, closing civic space etc.), South Africa also has incoherent communication policies, has made little to no progress on its digital plan, and has a media sector dominated by a small number of powerful, sometimes politically-connected, companies. There have been four Ministers of Communication in a period of just 12 months and the Department of Communications was confusingly split into two in 2015, creating a web of overlapping, but incomplete, policies and unclear responsibilities. The ICT Policy Review process, which started three years ago and aims to examine the policy frameworks that apply to telecommunications, broadcasting, and the e-commerce space is still not near completion.  

As a result of these various challenges, the problems of data privacy and misinformation in digital spaces are growing, and trust in the media as an institution is decreasing. In parallel, South Africa has experienced a growing trend of securitisation of the state, which resulted in state security agencies playing a more active and expanded role in attempting to silence critics of the government and to control public dialogue. Luminate is, therefore, also announcing a $330,000 grant over two years to Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), which aims to address some of these issues and create a responsible, quality media that enables an engaged and informed citizenry in Africa and the world. MMA provides the necessary vigilance on policymaking that has potential to affect media and civic freedoms, and to solidify these open and progressive principles in legislation and in the courts.   

MMA uses a human-rights based approach to conduct monitoring and research, engage with regulators and industry stakeholders, equip the public with critical digital and media literacy skills, ensure participation in policy matters and conduct strategic litigation when media freedoms are threatened. MMA stands out as one of the only organisations that has consistently made clear and coherent policy submissions since the end of the apartheid and the beginning of democracy in South Africa. 

The need for MMA’s work has never been more acute in the context of a media sector in crisis, and we are proud to support their efforts.