Ebrahim Moosa – Analysis | 20 June 2013
There has been a chorus of approval from advocacy groupings and representative bodies within the Muslim community in the wake of the unprecedented apology by the Daily Maverick over inaccuracies contained in an earlier report it published alleging proliferation of Al Qaeda activity in South Africa.
The article “Al-Qaeda: Alive and Well in South Africa” by journalist De Wet Potgieter purported to present the findings of a year-long investigation that uncovered “secret military training camps and sophisticated sniper training at three well-documented locations as well as several others across South Africa,” eliciting a storm of criticism from aggrieved and accused parties.
In its official response to the article’s retraction, the Media Review Network(MRN) welcomed the apology made by the editorial team of the Daily Maverick acknowledging the explanation provided by the editor of the Daily Maverick that Potgieter’s analysis was baseless and false. It also commended the online publication for shouldering the bravery to set the record straight.
Concurrently though, the advocacy body cautioned that the kind of journalism exhibited by Potgieter created incalculable damage that would be very difficult to undo.
“It is imperative that journalists and editors retain the integrity of objective journalism at all times,” it advised.
With its apology, the Maverick seems to have succeeded in toning down the heat it has faced from various quarters since the publishing of the controversial article. However, the unquestioning journalism and herd mentality of other media houses exhibited in the wake of the saga still leaves a bitter aftertaste.
“So will the rest of the media follow suit?” was a question journalist Docky Dockrat asked yesterday via Twitter, in response to the apology by the Daily Maverick.
Such an apology, some may argue, would be superfluous, as other media should be seen as simply reporting on the allegations highlighted by the Maverick.
But many opinionistas and commentators beg to differ.
On 13 May, Johannesburg based Eyewitness News followed the Daily Maverick cue, and parroted most of Potgieter’s conclusions uncontested.
In an article titled ‘SA Govt ignores Jihad camps,’ embellished with a file picture of an ‘Al Qaeda’ training camp, journalist Barry Bateman announced:
“It has emerged that the police’s specialised unit, Crimes Against the State (CATS) and the State Security Agency (SSA) have uncovered al-Qaeda-linked military training camps operating in South Africa, but are doing nothing about them”.
Soliciting no further external comment, the article and associated on-air voicers continued to give prominence to the claims made by the Daily Maverick, in some instances even exaggerating them.
For instance, Potgieter reported the compound of semi-detached living quarters comprising about 14 units at the Greylock farm owned by the Dockrats, were constructed by Malawians.
Bateman however alleged that the farm housed camps “equipped with training facilities and barracks” which “are believed to sleep mostly Pakistani and Malawian immigrants”.
The report in question and another called called: ‘SA men allegedly linked to Jihad camps‘ remain archived on the EWN website.
The popular news source however is not the sole outlet fingered for misdemeanor in this regard.
On May 14, the Star and its online counterpart IOL were emphatic in reporting that the Dockrat cousins were ‘linked to al-Qaeda’. News24 also further gave credence to the allegation that Al-Qaeda training camps were in existence in SA.
Equally problematic was the knee-jerk reaction of South Africa’s official party to the untested allegations. Democratic Alliance spokeswoman Dianne Kohler-Barnard said at the time that the party was demanding answers on why a reported probe into al-Qaeda activities in South Africa was stopped
“South Africans deserve an explanation as to what happened and why the investigation was stopped. If there was no terrorist threat then Crime Intelligence should be able to explain their reasoning for halting their investigation,” she said.
She intended writing to acting chairwoman of the police portfolio committee, Annelize van Wyk, to request that acting head of crime intelligence, Chris Ngcobo, and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa brief the committee on the situation urgently.
“These are extremely serious allegations, with both national security and international relations implications, and cannot be ignored. Minister Mthethwa must appear in Parliament to provide clarity on this situation,” she said.
Controversial Free State University (UFS) academic Hussein Solomon was another party that had immediately cited the Daily Maverick report as evidence to buttress his long held(and discredited) claims of Al Qaeda activity in South Africa.
In an analysis piece on the Israeli-run RIMA thinktank blog titled ‘South Africa Becoming Terrorist Haven’ Hussein unreservedly accepted Potgieter’s claims of ‘secret Islamist military training camps’ being in existence in South Africa.
Pursuing a familiar motif of his writings, Solomon continues to question the capacity of South Africa’s intelligence community and the will of their political mandarins to robustly respond to the scourge of international terrorism, and asks: “Why would these training camps not be regarded as a threat to South Africa’s own national security, not to mention the country’s own international legal obligations to eradicate terrorism? Was there any significance that all surveillance ended and intelligence operatives called off in 2010 – the year that South Africa hosted the Soccer World Cup and where there was credible evidence of a terrorist threat posed to this World Cup?”
Still leaning on Potgieter’s flawed ‘evidence’, the academic concludes: “These twin issues of a dearth of political will and incapacity will need to be fixed as a matter of urgency if we are to ensure the security of all South African citizens and for South Africa to play its part in eradicating the scourge of international terrorism”.
At the time of writing, no explicit apologies were forthcoming from the mentioned outlets and parties for their slant in the dissemination of the retracted Daily Maverick report.
Social media calls for a retraction or apology from EWN yesterday proved futile. Instead Bateman said an EWN report and link to the Daily Maverick apology should be deemed sufficient.
IOL did publish a footer on all its earlier stories alleging an Al Qaeda presence in South Africa indicating that the Daily Maverick had retracted its report.
But there was only silence from the quarters of the DA and Solomon.
The satisfaction expressed by the likes of the MRN and others in the Muslim community over the Maverick’s apology is indeed well founded.
But pending an acknowledgment of failure and sensationalism of the so-called terror threat to South Africa emanating from other sectors of the media and society, this satisfaction would certainly be short-lived.
The source and the satellites must both be recalibrated.