Read all about it, use Open Gazettes

Open Gazettes changes the way journalists use government gazettes to do stories, by allowing users to search and track important public information.

For veteran journalist Raymond Joseph, working your way through the week’s offerings of government gazettes was just another part of a junior newsroom reporter’s job, more than thirty years ago. Each week, he was tasked with going through them and looking for possible stories.

“This is when I discovered the value of gazettes, and how to really spot a story in them. I found so many different kinds of big, offbeat stories,” he says.

Government gazettes are a critical source of information about government business, and are an essential way for the public to be involved in governance. They are one of the most effective ways to hold the State to account. They communicate some of the most important information about the country, such as by-laws, corporate agreements, land claims, court orders and tenders.

The term ‘watchdog journalism’ comes to mind when looking at the relationship between government gazettes and the media. Its main purpose, to inform the public about the going-ons in institutions and society - including, very importantly, the State itself - is what led newsrooms to have journalists like Joseph and his peers spend a significant amount of time digging through official public documents. Government gazettes were also, as Joseph says, an excellent place to find stories.

Joseph’s favourite discovery was when he found a tender from the South African Defence Forces (SADF) for millions of condoms. “It started a whole discussion in the office; we were intrigued.” It turned out, he explains, the SADF was experiencing problems in rainy areas, where the insides of their rifles were getting wet and rusting; the condoms were to cover the tops of the rifles and keep moisture out.

It was useful to have all of that information in one place, but often difficult to decode the “government and tender speak” gazettes are published in. Another challenge journalists faced when working with gazettes was that there was no way of searching - in the digital sense of the word - through all of that paper, which made it difficult to “join the dots”. Joseph says that if they found something, they had to make a copy with the date and if you wanted to start making correlations, you landed up following a literal papertrail.

“And most of the time, we didn’t have the time to do that; we were on deadline and out on stories.”

Nowadays, with almost everything available at the flip of a switch or the click of a button, asking journalists to sift through pages and pages of gazettes – even scanned PDFs – is somewhat unconventional, and for the most part, unheard of. But even with government gazettes in a digitised format, correlating information using more than one gazette at a time remains difficult.

This is what makes the Open Gazettes resource and campaign such an important tool for journalists. As Joseph says, being able to search and go back historically, its searchability function will make things like tracking the development (or lack thereof) of a piece of legislation and searching for individuals using their ID numbers possible.

Because access to the resource and its collection of government gazettes is entirely free, it also solves the problem of previously having to have a subscription for weekly access. For freelancers especially, this will be particularly important.

A more recent example is using government gazettes to track the Eskom nuclear procurement saga. Earlier this year, Eskom was accused of trying to hide the fact it had applied for site licences for the construction of two nuclear facilities. Instead of publishing the notice for public comment in the national gazette, it placed notices in the provincial gazette. Critics, including the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), have said that they should have been published nationally. Eskom also set a deadline for public comment that was shorter than the required thirty days. This is after years of an already complex debate around the country’s nuclear procurement plan.

Using Open Gazettes in conjunction with media reports, we were able to track official material and correspondence relating to the procurement of nuclear energy. This allowed us to create a timeline starting when a skeleton of the Integrated Resource Plan 2010-2013 was first gazetted by the Department of Energy in 2010 - and when the idea of nuclear procurement first came to light in the public. Each step of the process could be identified with a bit of digging and research. This blog, with the complete timeline, will be published on our website early next week.

Open Gazettes is a collaboration between Code for South Africa, the Southern African Legal Information Institute (SAFLII) and the African Networks of Centers for Investigative Reporting, with support from The Indigo Trust and Code for Africa.