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Jan. 31, 2018, 10:06 a.m.
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Digging for dung, unearthing corruption: This South African investigative nonprofit could help take down the president

“When you diamond-mine, you basically mess up the resource if you go for the best stuff first.”

When Stefaans Brümmer was first approached about a group of whistleblowers prepared to share information about the suspicious relationships between South African president Jacob Zuma and the highly influential Gupta family, he started planning.

Brümmer and Sam Sole, both longtime investigative reporters, had built their journalism nonprofit, amaBhungane Center for Investigative Journalism, to do focused, long-haul, groundbreaking work. The terabyte of data on the Zuma–Gupta relationship, shared with them by the editor of another independent news organization, the Daily Maverick, in a working partnership, was the gem they had been preparing for.

“When you diamond-mine, you basically mess up the resource if you go for the best stuff first,” Brümmer said. “It was clear to us that many of the stories were actually stories that needed serious [time] to work [on] following the money.”

But shortly before the team of journalists Brümmer and Sole had assembled to parse the files were set to depart for a secure reporting site — and the whistleblowers for a refuge — out of South Africa, they were scooped. Someone looped into the chain between the whistleblowers and amaBhungane had leaked the leaks out of frustration with their slow-paced timeline, Brümmer and Sole say, and the Sunday Times and City Press ran with the story in late May. The amaBhungane-Daily Maverick cohort was at least three months away from its planned first release but still scrambled to publish something within the week.

“It certainly made things difficult for us,” Brümmer said. “Eventually, we re-owned the story simply by putting out the best and most stories.”

In a country whose media faces myriad challenges — South Africa was ranked only “partly free” in the 2017 Freedom of the Press Report — amaBhungane has emerged as a critical player in some of its biggest stories. And it’s building a more sustainable revenue model to ensure it can remain one.

“I never had any intentions to work with anyone else in South Africa on the Gupta Leaks,” said Branko Brkic, the editor of the Daily Maverick, who first approached Brümmer. “Working with amaBhungane was a completely natural choice and I really didn’t waste any time pondering about it. On top of it all, they spent years investigating the Guptas — and had a massive head start compared to anyone else.”

The National Press Club of South Africa recently named the Gupta Leaks the newsmaker of the year for 2017, recognizing amaBhungane’s work. The revelations — unmasking allegations of corruption involving Zuma’s family, the Guptas’ computer business, the South African public utility company, money laundering, and more — have powered the possibility that President Zuma’s controversial leadership of the country could soon be coming to an end. He was already replaced as the head of the African National Congress party late last year by his former deputy, who ran on an anti-corruption platform.

“Politically, the climate is fractious and fraught with tensions, but so far the ruling party has not stopped major investigations — nor do they know how to even if they wanted to,” said Glenda Daniels, a media columnist for South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, associate professor of media studies at Wits University in South Africa, and a former amaBhungane staff member. “Investigative journalism is intrinsic to our democracy and amaBhungane is quite central to investigations. The Gupta Leaks are a good example of such fruitful collaboration.”

In an analysis of the South African media environment, University of Cape Town media studies professor Herman Wasserman pointed to amaBhungane’s “tireless effort” in reporting on the Gupta Leaks and pushing for government transparency. But he also noted the many challenges faced by journalists in South Africa.

The Gupta Leaks were part of an investigation that dug deeply into political figures (amaBhungane means “dung beetles” in isiZulu, one of South Africa’s official languages), sprouting from an organization that was cobbling together its funding as a nonprofit, establishing trust among publishing partners and readers alike, and tracking activity deciding freedom of information in the courts.

Brümmer and Sole were long-time investigative journalists at the Mail & Guardian, but the development of reputable nonprofit outlets like the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, sparked their interest in exploring other options for their investigative work. “From the very start, we envisioned a nonprofit that would be independent from the Mail & Guardian. But we weren’t ready to move all the way away from them. They were the best publishing outlet in South Africa at the time for investigative journalism,” Brümmer said. “From a publishing perspective, it made sense to stay with the Mail & Guardian. From a financial perspective, we said ‘Let’s do this in stages.'”

They struck a deal with Mail & Guardian management allowing the three members of the investigative unit to transition to a nonprofit called amaBhungane. (The third member was Adriaan Basson, now the editor of South Africa’s largest online news site news24.) This freed up Brümmer and his cofounders to seek foundation funding, sweetening the agreement for the Mail & Guardian, which would get more hard-hitting reporting for the same amount of money. They grew their team from three to five before launching and published their first report in March 2010.

Two-thirds of the funding in the unit’s 2010-11 fiscal year came from the Mail & Guardian, one third from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa. But the arrangement “planted the seeds for friction,” Brümmer said: The Mail & Guardian expected more authority over amaBhungane than Brümmer and Sole were willing to give. Foundation support began overtaking the Mail & Guardian’s contributions (by 2016, the Mail & Guardian was contributing 29 percent of amaBhungane’s budget), but donors were hesitant to invest in an organization associated with the newspaper. The nonprofit was still using an office in the Mail & Guardian’s headquarters. The other news organizations that amaBhungane partnered with often wanted exclusivity. To thrive, Brümmer and Sole felt that amaBhungane needed solid autonomy.

AmaBhungane split with the Mail & Guardian in the spring of 2016. It started running a request for donations at the end of its stories. In the first year after the split, amaBhungane raised 800,000 rand (USD $66,880) — 200,000 rand above the target.

“We are going to close this [fiscal] year [in March] with more than 22 percent of operational expenditure — somewhere between 1.9 and 2 million rand — from supporters,” Brümmer said. The goal is for the site to get a third of its support from readers by 2019. AmaBhungane has around 320 monthly recurring donors giving an average 2,000 rand per person per year. “Since our crowdfunding launch, the single donations have occurred at an average of just over one per day,” Brümmer said.

AmaBhungane still collaborates with other publishers, including the Mail & Guardian, the Daily Maverick, news24, and Sunday Times. It has a joint sign-off policy with each publication so that the legal risks of its investigations are shared. Co-publishing helps increase the legitimacy of investigations and builds reader trust in a “snowballing effect,” Brümmer said. But amaBhungane is no longer financially reliant on one major news organization to survive.

The Daily Maverick, the organization that first received the Gupta Leaks and shared the information with amaBhungane, had sought an exclusive publishing partnership, Brümmer said. He declined that offer, still reeling from the experience of separating from the Mail & Guardian. “AmaBhungane is a paragon of honesty and independence,” Brkic, the Daily Maverick’s editor, said. “The more we worked with them, the more we appreciated them. Other news organizations must understand amaBhungane’s massive role in saving South Africa’s democracy and must subscribe to a same set of unimpeachable ethics, and appreciate their fierce independence, of course.”

In May, the Daily Maverick launched its own investigative unit, Scorpio, to work alongside amaBhungane’s journalists. In its announcement of Scorpio, Daily Maverick’s editors noted:

New faces have been recruited and some of your favourite Daily Maverick journos have been seconded to work on Scorpio, which will often collaborate with others in the media, including our friends at amaBhungane. In a country that desperately needs ten more amaBhunganes, we do not think of each other as competition but rather as like-minded allies with a common goal and different setup. It is also our hope to grow the base of writers and investigative journalists through a skills transfer programme in the near future.

In addition to original reporting, amaBhungane likewise focuses on growing that base of investigative journalists in the region. It advocates for access to information and freedom of the press in South Africa’s courts. It welcomes working journalists as fellows for three months to hone their investigative skills, which has spawned dung-digging units in Lesotho, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, and Namibia.

“Our nonprofit objective has been to develop the field versus just produce,” Brümmer said. “We want to be an institute that plows back into the field.”

Photo of protesters carrying a placard depicting a member of the Gupta family at an event in Cape Town by Discott used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 31, 2018, 10:06 a.m.
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