[intro]In societies where journalism faces constant threats of tighter government control, investigative and undercover journalism treads a particularly thin but necessary line between the ethical-legal and the institutionally censored.[/intro]

South Africa has a proud history of undercover exposés. During the years of apartheid it had a vibrant alternative press that more often than not had to adopt various undercover methods to unearth stories that would never have reached the public otherwise.

Newspapers such as the now defunct Vrye Weekblad, New Nation, the Rand Daily Mail, and the Weekly Mail, as well as magazines such as Drum (still in operation albeit with less of an investigative features focus than celebrity news) contributed considerably to bringing the story of apartheid in all its guises to the public during a time in which the news media was heavily supressed and regulated in South Africa.

Late journalist Henry Nxumalo, a pioneer in investigative journalism, exemplified this through his undercover work as a farm labourer working to expose the slave-like work conditions of black farm labourers, and through his chilling accounts of prison conditions for black prisoners in Johannesburg Central prison.

Similarly, journalists like Nat Nakasa reported on the harsh conditions of apartheid, and its aberrations in neighboring countries and in territorial annexures of apartheid South Africa.

In more recent times, South African investigative journalist Mzilikazi Wa Afrika has often found himself investigating stories that have driven him to go undercover to – among many other stories – expose modern-day slave trade syndicates making money from human trafficking and the trading in illegal IDs.

Wa Afrika’s exposés are about corruption and human rights abuse that would not have reached the public realm, had it not been for the way in which he consciously flaunted legal boundaries.

It’s no secret that historically and currently, journalists in South Africa are subjected to harassment by government and public officials. In this context, not only do we need to re-affirm the role of undercover journalism, the nature of investigative reporting can and should include even outright deception and ‘trickery’ to uncover hidden truths that advance democracy.

Bark or bite: the press as a watchdog

Classical liberal theorists have since the late 17th century argued that publicity, openness and a press working independently of government provide the best protection from the excesses of state power, i.e. the press as a watchdog of power is a guarantor of democracy.

The question is whether such a role is achievable in countries where continuous legacies of an authoritarian past restricts the news media and/or where the news media is largely driven by the imperatives of financial bottom lines?

In South Africa, the long history of colonial and apartheid rule has not provided ideal conditions in which a free press can truly thrive. The upshot is that journalists operate amidst, and in opposition to, inherited state formations that are still lodged within a culture of authoritarian bureaucracy and secrecy (the Protection of State Information Bill, for instance, is a fine example of this). However the ethical considerations remain.

Trickery and truth-telling for the public good

Undercover journalists have often been accused of breaking with ethical guidelines. One response to such criticism is to say that undercover journalism is serving ‘higher order’ principles of truth-telling in the interest of serving citizens and advancing democracy. Thus, the most important ethical guidelines pertain to assessing that the information is vital to the public interest.

The use of deception and ‘trickery’ remain contested though, both from the side of the audience as well as from within the profession itself, amidst fears of loss of credibility and public trust when ethical breeches cannot be defended and clearly explained from a public interest perspective.

Maybe the most important questions are where these boundaries lie, and if there are contextual issues in any one society that influence both the public’s tolerance towards methods perceivably unethical and the journalistic corps’s adoption of methods in the perceived public interest.

Because journalism is commonly associated with the pursuit of democracy and with societies that enjoy at least a modicum of peace, it may appear that journalism itself is a practice that does not inflict harm. Yet, if journalism is for societies what medicine is to human beings, we must accept that journalism, too, does involve infliction of harm in much the same way that doctors’ scalpels and medicines inflict harm in order to heal – at least in some instances. The imagery of journalists as watchdogs certainly invites the understanding that journalism can be a ‘biting affair’!

What matters is to see that journalism arises in a world marked by agonistic or violent contestation over truth and hegemony and journalists must be allowed to make use of a wide range of tools, tactics and strategies in the name of uncovering and dissemination of news that matters for the establishment and furtherance of democracy.

There is a need for undercover journalism as Ghanaian investigative reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas tellingly puts it “extreme social ills require extreme remedies…and extreme remedies are the most appropriate remedies to extreme diseases.” (Aremeyaw Anas 2008, Global Investigative Journalism Conference, Johannesburg). The suggestion is that it is worthwhile to contextually evaluate undercover journalism according to the uniqueness of each story and maybe even more importantly, each society.

This is an edited excerpt of The truth and nothing but the truth: a re-affirmation and re-evaluation of undercover journalism practices. Read the full article here.