20 April 2024 | 09:01 AM

EDITORIAL: Manufactured dissent

Key Takeaways

  • AmaBhungane, along with News24 and Daily Maverick, were subjected to wild allegations of capture after publishing an investigation on the closure of a small, left-leaning publication, New Frame.
  • Former ANC and Cope politician Phillip Dexter falsely accused amaBhungane of being captured by the US state department and of attending covert briefings with US ambassador Lana Marks.
  • None of these claims were true, yet Dexter did not attempt to verify them before publishing them and repeating them in interviews with SABC and Newzroom Afrika.

AmaBhungane has been under attack since we published our story on the closure of New Frame, which clearly touched a nerve.

Our 27 July article focused on the reasons for the abrupt closure of a small left-sympathetic publication and the motivation for the withdrawal of its sole effective funder, enigmatic Shanghai-based tech billionaire Roy Singham.

We could scarcely have anticipated the febrile and coordinated responses that would follow.

Smear campaign

Our single story provoked an extraordinary smear campaign, including separate articles published internationally in Counterpunch (by former New Frame editor Richard Pithouse), in Common Dreams (by Pithouse allies Phillip Dexter and Roscoe Palm, a self-described “political influencer”) and in Monthly Review (by Palm and Ajit Singh who works with No Cold War, a movement strongly punted by the broader Singham network). Locally there was an article in the Sunday Times (by Singham’s close friend Vijay Prashad).

These publications were paired with multiple radio and TV interventions and a lengthy condemnation by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

These attacks revolve around common themes and adopt common strategies that have more to do with propaganda than honest engagement.

None of the authors approached us for comment and none save Pithouse disclosed their interest in the events and institutions involved in New Frame’s demise.

Contrary to the picture Pithouse tried to paint – of hostile so-called “liberal media” rubbing their hands at the sight of a left publication going under, the truth is that New Frame had been treated as a welcome addition to the media fraternity since its inception.

Our article was born of a genuine concern that New Frame’s collapse meant a shrinking of the media space, and was an attempt to better understand big picture issues around media funding and political influence.

The extreme response – a synchronised effort to retaliate by raising questions about our funding and independence (which suggested we were proxies of the CIA, or at best, the US State Department) – perversely underlines the questions we raised about the agenda of Singham’s network.

This retaliation was a calculated effort to distract attention from the original issue.

What really happened here was that an admired left publication was closed and the reaction by conflicted individuals has been to attack essentially all independent media in South Africa with a hatchet job that hides its male fides by eliding the inciting incident.

The only discernible US interests involved are not the CIA or State Department, it is a network of ostensibly progressive left writers and magazines.

Unpicking the counter-narrative

We can dispense fairly quickly with the manufactured counter-narrative.

The articles and interviews suggest amaBhungane (together with other independent South African media) has been “captured by a coalition of right-wing and neo-liberal forces” and we are “firmly under neo-liberal control”.

The main basis for this claim seems to be the approach Pithouse allegedly received from US ambassador Lana Marks to attend regular “on the rocks and off the record” meetings at a fancy venue in Bantry Bay, and Marks’ alleged statement that “all the editors come”.

For the record, no one at amaBhungane has ever attended or been invited to these meetings. If the approach to Pithouse happened at all (no-one else at New Frame seemed aware of it), then it seems to typify the Trump administration: farcically ill-judged and ham-handed.

The second basis for this claim is that we get funding from entities such as Luminate and the Open Society Foundation.

Dexter and Palm write: “A number of publications have a stream of cash from a web of funds that are so wedded, directly or indirectly, to the US intelligence network that they have become an extension of the CIA … These editors and publications who hide their funding, hide their operations, and hide their agenda must come clean.”

This attack on our funding is entirely opportunistic: amaBhungane’s funding has never been a secret – unlike New Frame’s (If you go to their website, their funders are not disclosed anywhere, nor are their board of directors).

Radical Transparency

For the record, amaB is radically transparent about funding.

Our website discloses the names of every donor that gives more than R10,000 in a year.

We also have a published funding policy, which stresses that we don’t take money from governments or their proxies, nor do we take corporate funding, nor do we take funding for specific stories or story areas. Nor may any single donor provide more than 20% of our budget.

None of the philanthropies that give us money can be said to be fronts for the US state department or the CIA.

Luminate, for instance, forms part of the Omidyar Group that funded The Intercept on the back of the leaks of Edward Snowden, who exposed the extent of US global surveillance. Not the US establishment’s favorite person.

The Open Society Foundation has had an office in South Africa since 1993 and has funded an extraordinary array of public benefit organisations, from the Treatment Action Campaign to the Social Justice Coalition. They include Corruption Watch, which was brought to life by Cosatu.

Dexter called George Soros, who founded Open Society, “one of the most reactionary people that one can find politically”. This is just hyperbole. Soros has been consistently attacked by right wing authoritarians from the US Republican Party to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Both these foundations have independent boards. Neither of these two funders, nor any of our other many and varied donors, exercise influence over amaBhungane’s work beyond ensuring that we account for the money they give us.

It is surely destructive of the narrative now being advanced that Pithouse reached out to us (in what, unbeknown to us, were the death throes of New Frame) for advice on seeking alternative funding – to which end we unhesitatingly proffered our support.

Agenda

The final leg of the counter-narrative would have it that we are advancing an imperialist agenda, that we believe corruption has a black face and that we don’t investigate white business.

This critique makes no attempt to test our actual publication record against the allegation of US imperialist bias. It would be hard to find anything in our body of work that could remotely be considered beholden to US interests.

And, dating right back to the days of the Arms Deal, amaBhungane has made a point of focusing on the corporate actors in the corruption equation. That stance was also explicit during our investigation of State Capture.

The companies we have written about include, McKinsey, SAP, KPMG, Deloittes, PwC, MTN, Tongaat Hulett, Steinhoff, Nedbank, Investec, EOH, CRRC, Bombardier, Paramount, Novus.

We have been at the forefront of lobbying for greater corporate transparency, from entrenching the right of access to share-registers to lobbying for mandatory beneficial ownership disclosure.

We also make no apology for focusing on the political economy of corruption, on the way it has hollowed out the State: doctrines as varied as communist and conservative have a common understanding of the crucial role the State must play in redirecting resources for the public good.

Attack on free media

What makes this whole attack really troubling is that people purporting to be progressive have launched an attack on independent media in South Africa as a whole, with a scorched earth assault on the very idea of non-profit work, which has brought us so much progressive activism and invaluable media breathing space.

They adopt a cynically deployed worldview that is patronising and problematic. It comes from people who neither care for, or understand, journalism.

And, entirely predictably, this self-serving critique has been seized on by the most venal and extractive elements of our polity: they celebrate this smear against amaBhungane as a means to bolster their own campaign to evade accountability.

The authoritarian left and right have joined hands against our independent media.

Beware.

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Buyeleni Sibanyoni and Sam Sole

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