Seymour Hersh, one of the world’s most famous investigative journalists, told the Taco Kuiper awards ceremony in Johannesburg that all journalists should aspire to be investigative journalists because it sharpens their reporting skills, write Buhle Ndweni and Lenyaro Sello.


This applied particularly to young journalists, he said.

The award for 2007 went to the Daily Dispatch in East London for their investigation into baby deaths at the local Frere Hospital. The Mail & Guardian was named runner-up for a series of reports on the Commissioner of Police, Jackie Selebi, and his links to organised crime. The Kuiper award is the country's richest prize for journalists, with the winner walking away with R200 000. The runner-up takes home R100 000.

Hersh achieved international fame for his exposure of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1969, and in 2004 for reporting on the US military's mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq. He told the May 17 Kuiper awards ceremony, held at the Rand Club in the heart of Johannesburg, that the quality of work he has seen in SA is “very good”, comparing well to the best in other countries.

He said that investigative journalism is not about ideology and is not driven by an agenda, but by the desire to get to the truth.

“We all want integrity in our personal lives, but when it comes to leadership, we tend not to demand it,” said Hersh.

He said government leaders worldwide fail to show integrity and that it is the journalists’ responsibility to hold governments to the highest standards. Investigative journalists find out the secrets of government leaders and make them public, and the field will not disappear since corruption in government will persist.

He said it was a tragedy that US journalists joined their government in promoting the war in Iraq. “For me as a moralist and truth-teller, we [as investigative journalists] have a moral obligation against the war,” said Hersh.

Hersh described how he had grown up in a patriotic atmosphere, where American soldiers were always the "good guys". He had to rid himself of this attitude, he said. His research had revealed how young soldiers were damaged by being forced to fight "for the country's glory".

He described movingly how he uncovered the horrors of the My Lai massacre. The mother of one young soldier he had tracked down had said: “I gave them a good boy, and they sent me a murderer.”

Announcing the winners, Professor Anton Harber of Wits University said that the stories showed that, “no one, no matter how tall they stand, is above the law”. Harber said that the awards will from next year no longer be restricted to print, but will include all media.

Andrew Trench, the deputy editor of the Daily Dispatch, said that the winning project was a team effort and that the paper does not have an investigative team. “We create a culture of investigation with our news team,” he said.