In this month’s installment of Heliograph: The Investigative Journalism Playbook, IJB reporters Wendy-Ann Clarke and Masih Khalatbari speak with South African reporter Daneel Knoetze about his award-winning investigation with Viewfinder, “Above the Law.” The investigation exposed data on killings by police and thousands of other cases of alleged corruption and police brutality.
Knoetze’s work led to the creation of a publicly accessible database of more than 47,000 cases. It included details on more than 3,000 killings by police.
By Mzwandile Poncana
As a young reporter in South Africa, Daneel Knoetze underwent an experience that would change the course of his career.
In the midst of a violent strike near his home in 2013, Knoetze was the only reporter on the scene when police killed a man. After meeting with the man’s brother, he discovered the shooting victim was a poor migrant worker from Lesotho—an enclave within South Africa.
The case left an indelible imprint on his memory.
“There was no recourse and no accountability in what should really have been an open and shut case,” says Knoetze.
He went on to found Viewfinder—a small, investigative newsroom—and its flagship project centering on police brutality launched in 2019.
In a Google search, Knoetze entered the name of the South African police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), along with the words “dysfunction,” “corruption,” and other key words. He came across a short news article about how a whistleblower from the watchdog had testified during a public inquiry that there were serious irregularities in how cases were managed. The person alleged that the watchdog was closing unresolved cases to inflate performance metrics and clear a massive backlog of police brutality complaints. The revelation hit Knoetze “like a gavel,” he says.
Before phoning the whistleblower, Knoetze spent days reading annual reports and other open-source information such as parliamentary minutes and statistics relating to the outcomes of cases. The available data backed the whistleblower’s claims.
His diligence helped establish his credibility with the whistleblower once they had a chance to speak.
“He was impressed that I’d done my homework,” Knoetze says.
After speaking to the whistleblower, Knoetze decided to file a massive records request for the raw data from each individual case.
Every year, the police watchdog receives between 5,000 and 7,000 allegations of criminal misconduct against the police. These include allegations of killings and assaults, deaths and rapes while in custody, serious torture, and corruption. Knoetze would add each allegation to a database he was building. Knoetze was particularly interested in tracking how often an investigation led to accountability.
What began as nearly 100 individual spreadsheets coalesced into the Police Accountability Tracker, a public database forensically documenting tens of thousands of complaints. This gave rise to a series of articles analyzing the data.
Explore Viewfinder’s Police Accountability Tracker here: https://policeaccountabilitytracker.co.za/
After getting access to an extensive set of data, Knoetze realized he didn’t have the coding experience to handle it. He hired freelance data scientists to clean, consolidate, and address anomalies in the data.
The protection of identities was a major concern. The team worked to ensure the confidentiality of sensitive information so that the database would not compromise ongoing criminal investigations.
“It came with massive challenges, of course, but certainly I felt it was incumbent on me … to make that (information) accessible to the wider public,” he says.
Investigative journalists, Knoetze says, should probe the systemic dysfunction behind individual episodes of tragic human suffering.
“I was always driven by the human experience of injustice and using that as the baseline to interrogate what systemic blinders might be there,” he says.
When it comes to connecting with sources, he suggests conducting background research to understand the motivations, environments and limitations they’re working within. This will allow you to speak to them in a language that is accessible to them, inviting them in.
“Immediately there is a barrier of alienation that is broken,” says Knoetze.
“If you know something small about their work environment, that is often a great way into the conversation because sources feel that you picked up on something that is unique to their experience,” he says. “Everybody wants to be heard.”
Heliograph is a monthly podcast from the Investigative Journalism Bureau examining powerful investigative work by reporters from across the globe.