Making the case for investigative journalism


Johannesburg, November 2008

Journalists must report the truth, regardless of the situation and any short-term persecution, said South African journalist Khatu Mamaila to the The Media Project's Conference of Media & Religion.

Mamaila, editor of the 2.5-million-circulation City Press, added that getting ahold of and reporting the truth can be costly but the payoff is long-term inner peace. In South Africa, Mamaila says that the payoff can also be better government.

The delicate task for journalists is to learn to appraise the different versions of the truth, he said. Speaking to a religiously attuned audience, Mamaila pointed out that some truths betray, as in the biblical case of Judas, while other truths reveal.

“Truth is subjective,” declared Mamaila, “and is not always in the interest of the common good.”

Investigative journalism serves the public good, according to Mamaila, despite sometimes using false pretenses to gain information. For reporters with religious affiliations, this presents a moral dilemma. But Mamaila distinguishes between “holy lies” and self-serving lies.

In the Old Testament story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac, Mamaila pointed out that Abraham lied to Isaac about what was happening. This "holy lie" calmed Isaac and allowed God to intervene by rescuing Isaac and providing a substitute sacrifice.

In another famous Old Testament story, said Mamaila, Cain lied about murdering his brother Able. This lie was merely to protect himself. It was self-serving and therefore evil.

While Mamaila believes that investigative journalism may make use of “holy lies”, he also urged caution. Especially when dealing with “whistleblowers,” journalists can unwittingly become pawns in an aggrieved person’s plan for revenge.

Despite such risks, Mamaila sees investigative journalism as the purest and best form of journalism.

“Investigative journalists probe and search for difficult answers until they find the truth,” Mamaila said. “They separate truth from fiction. They do not work as secretaries who just take notes and nod as their subjects are interviewed.”

Mamaila challenged journalists never to trust the official, government version of any story. Doing so is just bad journalism, he said, because the official version of most stories is full of self-serving lies.

Investigative journalism should be on the side of truth, said Mamaila. It should be about exposing corruption in government and big business.

“The Bibles urges us to tell the truth, and it urges us to pray so that our society may live a peaceful life under good governance,” concluded Mamaila. “Exposing corruption is a major factor in creating good governance as we hold our leaders to account to the people and to deliver the best service possible.”

By Richard Potts, Media Project Staff

Africa, JusticeRichard Potts