NEWS
03/05/2018 13:50 BST | Updated 03/05/2018 13:53 BST

Ferial Haffajee: At The Heart Of Each Act Of Accountability Is An Act Of Journalism

As World Press Freedom Day dawned on Thursday, Cambridge Analytica died.

As World Press Freedom Day dawned on Thursday, Cambridge Analytica died. The company at the heart of a massive data-breach scandal, which dragged Facebook into a major credibility crisis, said it was closing shop after a blitz of revelations damaged its reputation.

In March, Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the New York Times revealed how Cambridge Analytica had illegally obtained Facebook data that it was using to build a treasure trove of misinformation to swing elections everywhere from Kenya to the U.S. and Sri Lanka.

The Facebook dataset was one part of Cambridge Analytica's political arsenal devised to infuse the Internet and popular social media platforms with misinformation. That its work has been so spectacularly upended by investigative journalism is the best possible news on World Press Freedom Day, and it mirrors what happened with the global PR giant Bell Pottinger in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger, a heavyweight in spin by any measure, is now bankrupt after it was caught out for its disinformation work for the Gupta family by Internet sleuths, working with journalists, in South Africa. The DA laid charges with the industry regulator in the U.K., and the rest is history.

South Africa is a theatre of accountability for state capture after the huge political changes occasioned by the election of President Cyril Ramaphosa as governing party leader in December 2017. At the heart of each act of accountability is an act of journalism.

The judicial commission of inquiry into state capture by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo was appointed by recommendation of former public protector Thuli Madonsela after her report into corruption related to the Gupta family network.

That report was built on the investigative journalism of the consortium of amaBhungane, Scorpio and News24. Each parliamentary inquiry into different state-owned enterprises has an act of journalism at its epicentre. For example, the inquiry into Eskom has the reporting by Business Day and Financial Mail as core source material.

The central role of journalists in uncovering state capture has been celebrated, and trust in media has gone up. Risk has, arguably, gone down. While the Protection of State Information Bill (the so-called secrecy bill) is still on the agenda, it is unlikely to see the light of day — as media lawyers stand poised to bring a constitutional law action against it.

The access to information laws in South Africa are used with great efficacy by journalists, though they remain expensive to litigate on. This mirrors a global trend in which the passage of access to information laws has grown from 90 countries in 2011 to 112 countries in 2016.

South African journalism is experiencing a golden age, but as Unesco's director of freedom of expression and media development Guy Berger has noted in "World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development" published this week, the story is one of one step forward and one step backwards. Unesco is the U.N.'s education and cultural organisation.

Berger noted that while access to information is growing, the numbers of Internet shutdowns (which include blocking, filtering and shutdowns) grew from 18 in 2015 to 56 in 2016.