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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

Journalism: Stop hacking at the hacks

For all its faults, traditional journalism has helped keep the powerful in check and shine a light into dark, evil places.

The 18th of April, 1994 was a Monday and one still frozen in my mind.

Monday was my day off. It was the day I would mow the lawn. Much like washing a car, mowing a lawn leaves you with a sense of accomplishment, having returned order to the world.

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Mindless tasks like that helped me put my world in order after a few traumatic months.

First it was Abdul Shariff, a freelance photographer with whom I’d worked a few times in the townships of the East Rand as the fighting between the IFP and ANC erupted into civil war the previous year.

He’d been killed by a bullet in the back while covering an ANC demonstration in January 1994.

It was some time in 1993 in Tokoza, as I ducked behind a wall just as bullets smashed into it – while Abdul stood his ground and carried on shooting pictures – that I decided I wasn’t going back into the townships.

No rush of adrenaline – and there were many – was stronger than the realisation that I didn’t want to come back in a body bag.

I wanted my small home, my wife, my two kids, two dogs and a cat.

Also, on that Monday, I was just starting to forgive myself from running away the previous month in Mmabatho in Bophuthatswana, as mobs rampaged and three right-wingers were shot dead, one after he surrendered.

Three people had either threatened to kill me, or tried to… and I knew I was pushing my luck.

But on that Monday, I was still a coward and somehow ashamed of being alive…

That Monday, as I stepped out of the shower after the mowing chores, I caught something on 702, my always-on radio and news update.

It was about a journalist being shot dead on the East Rand. In those days, we were a lot closer than we are now and it had to be somebody I knew.

It was Ken Oosterbroek, the chief photographer of The Star, who was with me in the car that day in Mmabatho as we arrived at the scene when the right-wingers were executed by Bop soldiers – who then fired on us.

That was the straw which broke this weak reporter’s back.

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But for Ken – and the other photographers who called themselves, with dark humour, the “Bang Bang Club”– there was no running away.

No news photograph happened while the person with the camera was seated behind a desk… or crouching behind a solid wall.

Today, the world is a vastly different place. In most media outlets, we no longer have the luxury of taking photographers with us on stories.

Cellphone cameras – as long as they are not stolen or smashed by angry mobs – do an acceptable enough job of producing images.

Short-staffed as we are as news organisations – and fighting for our very financial survival –many of us are working far harder than any hacks did 30 years ago.

Many do so from behind a desk, pressured by the need to feed the ravenous online news machine with regular updates.

And more than any other time in history, we journos are reviled as purveyors of fake news or being “guns for hire” – ironically by those who get their “facts” (read conspiracy theories) directly off anarchic social media platforms.

For all its faults, traditional journalism has helped keep the powerful in check and shine a light into dark, evil places.

Much as those of us who knew Oosterbroek still miss him and the lives we once led, you, dear reader, will miss us much more when we become extinct.

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