How much are we willing to pay to make sure that freedom – including media freedom – is not pulled away from us? This question by veteran journalist Joe Thloloe set the tone for a discussion on the role of media and civil society. By JESSICA BEZUIDENHOUT.
State capture is the big story to tell, but the South African media has to strike a healthy balance between exposing the rot at the top and putting the spotlight on the impact of poor leadership on service delivery.
But for this to happen, newsrooms must be recapitalised with skill and money to allow journalists to get back to the trenches to tell the stories of ordinary people and their plight.
It was apt that a panel discussion on the role of the media and civil society was kicked off by veteran journalist and former press ombudsman Joe Thloloe, who spoke about his passion for media freedom, its role in our democracy and dangers of losing that freedom.
“The battle for media freedom is not just one for journalists, it is one for everyone committed to our democracy. How much are we willing to pay to make sure this is not pulled away from us?”
South Africans should never again be able to use the fig leaf: “I didn’t know,” Thloloe, who is executive director of the Press Council, said as he set the scene for a panel discussion between civil society activists Mark Heywood, Fatima Hassan and businessman Jay Naidoo to thrash out the need for a recalibration of the relationship between the media and civil society.
The intimidation of journalists, disinformation and an era of fake activism are but a precursor to the sinister pattern that has emerged in countries like Russia, Turkey and Bahrain, said Hassan.
“We need a society where the media can operate free from the risk of intimidation. This (the attacks on journalists) is a global phenomenon,” said Hassan.
Referring to the Black First Land First (BLF) movement, Hassan said the BLF’s is not genuinely interested in transformation, but that did not mean transformation is not a matter for the media and civil society to deal with.
Heywood stressed the importance of the media telling more comprehensive stories by striking the link between state capture and state failure.
“You have done a lot on state capture. But you have failed to tell the story of the consequences thereof,” Heywood said while highlighting a staggering R7-billion debt of the National Health Services Laboratory and the exodus of doctors from the the public health sector in the Free State.
“We have to start seeing the human costs, otherwise we cannot galvanise our society to stand up. Journalists must expand the ambit of reporting to help drive and fix the results of state capture,” Heywood said.
“Across education, health, drugs, femicide, the destruction of infrastructure, there is horror out there. We need to mobilise against it,” Heywood said.
The panellists agreed on the need for journalists and civil society to work in greater tandem – that the media too has a duty to help advance the vision of social justice in SA.
They agreed that in an environment where newsrooms are stretched for resources, it is critical that legitimate media are funded in a transparent manner.
At any other time, calls for funding may have had people squirming in their seats, but this was a room filled with “power and money” and those who shared the common interest of getting South Africa back on the right track.
While starved of cash, the media cannot play the role we need them to play. They need time to “excavate” the truth to help bring about the changes required.
The panellists agreed to a novel call for big business to reconsider its approach to the window-dressing style of social responsibility – even to consider directing some of the billions spent on corporate social responsibility campaigns to ethical journalism.
Corporate SA, said Naidoo, pumps about R10-billion into corporate social investment projects – some of which were nothing but “cutting the ribbon”.
Make it matter by putting up the cash for causes that matter, by funding civl society and the media to help advance this democracy, Naidoo urged the money in the room.
But as South Africans increasingly make their voices heard in the fight against state capture, a growing number of journalists have fallen victim to campaigns by pseudo activists set on presenting the media as the anti-revolutionary villains of our society.
Amid this global phenomenon of attacks on the press, there are those whose agenda involves telling the truth – and then there are those who don’t.
In some cases, government funding is being diverted to a select few to subvert democracy.
South Africa can’t rely on foreign or wealthy donors to defend those elements that make up the engine of its democracy – research, litigation and the media.
In closing, Hassan warned that the media needs to pursue abuse of power in the private sector with as much vigour as it does when it involves arms of state. DM
Photo: South Africans should never again be able to use the fig leaf: “I didn’t know,” said veteran journalist Joe Thloloe. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks