Johannesburg - I've noted with utter disgust the attempt by some elements in the media to cast aspersions on my integrity by linking me to "a smear campaign" aimed at bringing down Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
These sustained attacks on me before and after the publication in The Sunday Independent last Sunday on the deputy president’s emails to alleged lovers give weight to questions that I've raised before on our media's commitment to ethical journalism.
Nothing patently demonstrates this bias more than the events of the past few days.
This is how it all started.
I have for the past few months been investigating hundreds of emails that were leaked to me linking Ramaphosa to a string of extra-marital affairs.
The emails are accompanied by pictures, erotic videos and bank deposit slips.
The first thing that any editor does when they are presented with such sensitive information is to take time and verify every single document they have been given by their sources. This is exactly what I did.
And let me place it on record this was not the first time I was presented with damaging information on Ramaphosa. I’ve in the past thrown away information on Ramaphosa that failed credibility assessment tests.
My team and I have over the past few months spent hours daily going through every document in an effort to satisfy ourselves that the information we were given was credible.
We also brought on board experts including lawyers, and only after passing legal scrutiny, did we start sending questions to some of those implicated in the emails.
I started with Mr Ramaphosa. And out of respect for him and the office that he holds, I decided not to send questions to Ramaphosa's spokesman because the information was sensitive and of a personal nature. I decided to send him an SMS on Wednesday, 30 August in which I requested him to send me his private email address to which I could send him these questions.
Ramaphosa, who at this stage had not the slightest idea what the questions were about, responded on Thursday morning and sent me two private email addresses, which interestingly were exactly the same email addresses that he used to communicate with all the women he is alleged to have romantic relationships with.
It was only after we emailed him questions later the same day that Ramaphosa realised his blunder. He then decided to go all out to make sure the allegations against him didn't reach the public.
Firstly, he deployed his campaign manager, one Benjani Chauke to meet with me.
While I was awaiting his response to my questions, Ramaphosa sent me an SMS on Friday, just minutes before the expiry of the 5pm deadline.
He told me he was unable to meet the deadline and needed "to collate information that I need to put before you about the allegations".
I responded immediately and gave him until 10am the next day to respond. A few minutes after my SMS communication with Ramaphosa, questions that were sent to one of the women romantically linked to him were leaked on social media. About an hour later, those sent to Ramaphosa's private email accounts with my cellphone numbers followed suit.
This put enormous pressure on me. My cellphone never stopped ringing. I was bombarded with calls by the media, the public and ordinary citizens who wanted me to confirm whether the questions had been sent by me.
At the same time, I started receiving death threats from callers claiming to be Ramaphosa’s supporters.
While all this was happening, Ramaphosa released a press statement in which he lamented the leaking of questions that were sent to him, indirectly accusing me of being behind the leaks.
Instead of responding to my questions, Ramaphosa even went as far as calling Independent Media’s executive chairman Dr Iqbal Survé, begging him to make sure that The Sunday Independent would not publish the story about him.
Dr Survé did indeed call me – to make it clear that he would never interfere with my editorial independence, but he stressed the need for the material in our possession to undergo rigorous expert scrutiny.
Dr Survé told me that he had indicated to Mr Ramaphosa that he could not interfere in editorial decision-making. He told me he had indicated to Mr Ramaphosa that I as the editor had decided to go ahead with publishing the story without the emails, photos and videos until these had been subjected the further rigorous authentication processes.
While I was seriously considering delaying the story for another week, the unexpected happened. Questions to Ramaphosa and one of the women were leaked.
Since my credibility was at stake, the only way to defend myself and The Sunday Independent was to go ahead and publish the story.
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I must stress that what we published last Sunday, was a sanitised version of the original story. While I was satisfied that what we had was genuine, the idea was to reveal more once sensitive material such as the emails themselves, videos and pictures had undergone further legal vetting.
While all of this was happening, Ramaphosa was busy communicating with our competitors giving them interviews about his private life which were going to be published on Sunday, the same day our story was going to hit the shelves.
So desperate and determined was Ramaphosa he released another press statement, his second in less than 24 hours, which he said was a response to questions put to him by The Sunday Independent.
Nothing demonstrates Ramaphosa’s motives than his public response to the questions that were sent to him privately.
A few hours later Ramaphosa - despite being assured by Dr Survé that I had decided to publish the story without publishing the sensitive information - dragged us to court in a bid to interdict The Sunday Independent from publishing anything.
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It is important to note that Ramaphosa has so far not denied either the existence or the veracity of the emails in our possession.
In his two press statements and in his court documents, he objects to the publication of the emails on the basis that this was an invasion of his privacy.
Ramaphosa is no ordinary citizen. He is a high-ranking leader of the ruling party bidding to become the next president of the ANC at the elective conference in December and from there become president of the country. As such he is ineligible to be accorded the same right to privacy that ordinary citizens enjoy.
Ramaphosa is also a person who has sold himself to South Africans as a paragon of moral virtue, evidence by his utterances on state capture and his condemnation of sugar daddies and “blessers”. His behaviour flies in the face of this.
He is also deservedly credited for the key role he played in the drafting of our internationally acclaimed Constitution which is anchored on human rights, yet he pressured Dr Survé to intervene on his behalf, effectively to interfere with editorial independence – a key pillar of media freedom, enshrined in the constitution.
Ramaphosa's conduct has been of a person with something to hide: Questions sent to his private emails were leaked. This was quickly followed by a press statement. Then his campaign manager was dispatched to meet me. Then he made multiple calls to Dr Survé. Then he granted a spoiler interview, admitting some facts but denying others to one of our competitor papers in a bid to positively spin the story. At the same time, he tried to interdict us from publishing.
If the allegations against him are untrue, why did he not just answer the questions he was asked? Why did he go to these lengths?
The leaking of questions that I sent to two private emails with my cellphone numbers has placed my life in danger.
Ramaphosa should condemn these threats on my life. He hasn’t.
He should come clean on the allegations before even more is revealed.
This is not an idle threat; since The Sunday Independent published the story more women have approached us asking to tell their stories. We are currently verifying their claims.
I was not the only person to be given the original tranche of emails upon which our story is based. My source from whom I received this information tells me other journalists were given the same information.
The suspicion is that they were ordered by their editors not to pursue the story to protect Ramaphosa’s reputation.
It’s a very different scenario to the alacrity with which the so-called Gupta-leaks have been handled or indeed the reaction to Ramaphosa’s brother-in-law’s own sex scandal, when the Sunday Times broke the story of Minister Jeff Radebe.
I’ve also noted with contempt attempts by some publications to link me to BLF leader Andile Mngxitama and businessman Kenny Kunene, both of whom were in court on Saturday night when Ramaphosa’s application against The Sunday Independent was heard.
So desperate are our competitors to destroy my credibility they have forgotten a court is a public place.
Here are the facts:
Minutes after receiving a call from Ramaphosa’s lawyers informing me of their intention to interdict us, I tweeted that Ramaphosa was taking us to court.
This alerted many people, including numerous reporters and many others following this story with keen interest.
By the time I got to court Mngxitama and Kunene were already there – I didn’t ask them to be there.
My relationship with Kunene, for which I owe no one an explanation, is no secret. We have been friends for decades.
The campaign of vilification against me personally and The Sunday Independent lays bare a campaign of factionalism and bias in the media.
Those same news outlets targeting me for writing and publishing a story negative of the deputy president do not afford the same protection to other politicians – like Radebe.
The bias comes through with their lack of support for me in regard to the death threats I have received.
The industry was quick - and rightfully so – to rally around the SABC 8 and to take action against Mngxitama when he threatened certain journalists. But they are silent when my life is threatened.
This hypocrisy and their unwillingness to report without fear or favour, but instead openly back and protect certain politicians to unseat others is a terrible threat not just to press freedom but to media integrity.
Journalists have brazenly asked me to reveal my sources, ignoring the sacrosanct tenet of our profession which protects the anonymity of sources.
The public will not be fooled any longer and will see through this agenda for what it is.
As for myself, irrespective of how the deputy president tries to sidestep the truth and avoid responsibility for his actions, irrespective of the scorn heaped on my by our competitors and irrespective of the death threats that I am facing and may face in future, nothing will deter me from revealing the truth.
* Steven Motale is the editor of The Sunday Independent.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.