Peter Parker and The Power of Leaked Information

There is somewhat of a romantic notion that tends to persist in our collective imaginations of what an investigative journalist looks like. He or she will need to be informally dressed, working tirelessly, obsessive in nature, but generally be of a dishevelled appearance, somewhat anxious, intense. One imagines an investigative journalist meeting contacts in bars and seedy restaurants, visiting police stations to meet potential witnesses in custody, perhaps exchanging pleasantries with officers and paralegals, and spending substantial time poring over old grainy photos from dusty files. In the dark hours of night, we imagine journalists pinning identikits to bedroom walls, in a sort of artistic collage that will ultimately lead him or her to the truth. Then they will publish the ground-breaking story.

It is this image – informed primarily by the cultural force of American television – that is probably the one that we hold on to when we consider the efforts of those who work against the forces that undermine democracy and freedom. The foundations of democracy, after all, depend not only on the balance of power between the President, the Judiciary, and the endless debates and points of order that we call Parliament, but also on our unobjectionable belief in the infallibility of the press. We specifically believe in the infallibility of the investigative independent press, and depend on them to root out the corruption and rot that can so easily get purchase on the organs of state.

Until fairly recently in South Africa, however, this belief had been substantially eroded. There was – and to some extent remains – a significant faction within government that believes that a law should be implemented that reins in the independence of the press, and the media in general. State-owned enterprises, such as South African Airways, now not only force travellers to watch the safety briefing, but also force travellers to watch a propaganda speech from a rather young and irreverent-looking Malusi Gigaba. One of the better-selling newspapers that now occupies shelf-space in stores across the country was owned by a Gupta-company; and the SABC is unquestionably compromised following the sudden exit of the so-called “SABC Eight” and the intimidation that they have subsequently experienced.

There are of course some superb journalists that persist in spite of regular and terrifying threats, including those from the Mail & Guardian, the Financial Mail, and more recently the Daily Maverick online newspaper. There is also a group of heroic journalists called amaBhungane who publish two to three times a week pieces of genuinely original, well-researched and provocative writing that rival even the great stalwarts of true independent journalism out of the U.S. or the U.K. or Germany.

There is, however, a clear pattern that becomes evident in a regular reading of their work, as well as in reading across the newspapers and magazines published in South Africa over the past year. Firstly, it would appear that the somewhat illicit acquisition of the Gupta hard-drive earlier this year, is the primary and seemingly endless source of material that has begun to unravel the unethical and possibly criminal activities of those within government institutions, as well as those within private enterprise, who have persistently attempted to steal from the state coffers.

Another key source of material for the journalists seem to be the official State of Capture report, written by Thuli Madonsela, formerly the Public Protector, in which significant reliance is made by her on the statements and affidavits made by whistle-blowers. In the case of the State of Capture report, there is also reliance on the location of various of the Gupta and state-owned enterprise personnel allegedly involved, based on cell-phone tower triangulation. Much is made, for example, of the fact that Des Van Rooyen was “in the area of Saxonwold” shortly before being announced as Minister of Finance, following the dismissal of Pravin Gordhan from the position.

Finally, there are the flight and travel receipts that seem to provide evidence that state officials or Gupta lieutenants flew to Dubai, or to Switzerland, allegedly to meet Ivan Glasenberg, CEO of Glencore, to battle over the fate of Optimum Coal. These multiple sources of evidence – the Gupta hard-drive, the whistle-blowers, the cell phone GPS co-ordinates, and the travel receipts – pieced together, can provide an incredibly intricate and detailed picture, an entire storyline in fact, whose cogency and logic give one the sense that the journalists have uncovered the true motivations of those firms and those individuals who continue relentlessly to undermine this country. Perhaps they do not achieve the level of proof that would be required by a court of law, nor even by a state prosecutor – should Thuli Madonsela’s replacement at some point act – but they certainly are turning the screw on corruption.

The Eskom pricing argument with Optimum Coal is a perfect example. It seems self-evident that – during the worst load-shedding crisis in South African history during the winter months of 2015 – Optimum Coal was held ransom by Eskom and its Gupta-allies to sell at rock-bottom prices. There is simply too much evidence to deny this. Altogether, these sources of information (the emails, the whistle-blowing, the cell phone records, etc.) make for a thorough and compelling storyline, but they are unfortunately insufficient to provide a strong legal footing for actual prosecution. Certainly, the job of the investigative journalists has been done: to provoke substantial doubt and to piece together a viable story that provides sufficient evidence of motive to force the hand of prosecutors, but there has been little forthcoming from that department.

The argument has been that the National Prosecuting Authority has been derelict in its duty and that this provides more evidence that State Capture has extended its clawing hands even further into the guardianship of democracy and freedom itself – into the very organs meant to protect us.

But, for a moment, it is worth dwelling a little longer on the sources that have enlightened these stories. There are four of them: a single hard-drive pinched from a Gupta employee, the recorded statements and interviews held with several whistle-blowers – some of whom remain anonymous – cell-phone records and travel receipts. The only piece of real evidence that can be considered anything but circumstantial in this mix are the innumerable emails on the Gupta hard-drive. Whilst it does not sound like nearly enough, it is instructive to note that the greatest exposures of state-run illicit programs – in the last decade in the civilised western world – conducted on such a grand scale, have almost always come from the same kind of source: a disenfranchised or unwitting employee in possession of a hard drive.

Edward Snowden provides an ideal portrait of the extent of damage a single individual can do to the incumbents of power. He is still, at the time of writing, in Russia, a guest of Vladimir Putin, and increasingly it appears that he is becoming nothing more than a pawn in the debate over Trump’s position on the question of Russia. He is accused by his own country of being a spy for revealing – via the leaking of encrypted documents from a stolen hard-drive – indisputable evidence that the NSA ran a massive surveillance program for more than a decade. This surveillance program undoubtedly continues to run, and Snowden’s leaks demonstrate that the NSA was listening in to conversations and messages on a gargantuan scale, including spying on the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, a staunch ally of the United States.

The Panama papers, the Snowden files, and now the Gupta hard-drive – each of these are major breakthroughs for journalists, and in each case, it was a whistle-blower and a hard-drive, that pried open a ground-breaking story. One hopes that the impact of the Gupta hard-drive will be more significant than the impact of the Edward Snowden leak – for his information leak demonstrates more the dire consequences of his actions to his own  life and freedoms, than demonstrating any impact to  the NSA.