OP-ED

Ethical journalism is under threat everywhere — we have to ensure its survival

By Mahlatse Mahlase 21 October 2019

Mahlatse Mahlase is chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum. (Photo by Business Community)

Mahlatse Mahlase is chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum. This is an edited version of her speech delivered at the forum’s annual Black Wednesday gala dinner at Emoyeni in Parktown, Johannesburg on Friday 18 October 2019.

A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

I have just quoted the words of our revered late statesman Nelson Mandela — reminding us of the importance of a critical and independent press as the cornerstone of our democracy.

However as I read his words 26 years later — I couldn’t help it — my heart sank.

The reality is that the lifeblood of our democracy is under threat. It is fighting for its economic survival and pushing back against what appears to be an orchestrated campaign to silence investigative reporting exposing the greed and ills of our politicians.

Yes, today we gather to remember the heroes of our liberation struggle — those who used the might of the pen and risked their lives so that today we can be free to speak truth to power — protected by our celebrated Constitution.

We honour the men and women who despite the real danger of the evil regime, said, “we will force into the open the atrocities of the apartheid government”.

Men and women like Percy Qoboza, Joe Thloloe, Mathatha Tsedu, Aggrey Klaaste, Juby Mayet, Thenjiwe Mtintso, Ruth First.

It is the 42nd anniversary of Black Wednesday, when the National Party government attempted to silence the media by banning newspapers and organisations that were part of the black consciousness movement. They also arrested the prominent journalists who dedicated their lives to dying by the pen.

The clampdown of 19 October 1977 became known as Black Wednesday, triggering years of resistance and what is now our fight for media freedom.

A blogger celebrating the life of Percy Qoboza, who was editor of The World newspaper shut down on that day, quotes him as saying:

We were an angry newspaper. For this reason, we have made some formidable enemies, and my own personal life is not worth a cent. But I see my role and the role of those people who share my views as articulating, without fear or favour, the aspirations of our people. It is a very hard thing to do.”

Yes, under a democratic South Africa, we don’t fear being jailed, we don’t fear being tortured, but our jobs are still hard.

We are facing new threats to our freedom.

Some of the threats are the very communities we serve that quickly turn against us — they attack us because often their legitimate causes are hijacked by criminal elements who steal our equipment to avoid being splashed on television, looting bottle stores.

It has become all too familiar that a journalist will expose a politician’s wrongdoing — and the response won’t be to report it to the relevant bodies and authorities available — instead, these journalists will be attacked and insulted. They are labelled as “loyal racist members of Stratcom” — Stratcom, after the agency that was tasked to carry out disinformation campaigns at the height of apartheid.

Allow the weight of that label, in democratic South Africa to sink in!

Reporters are now called “dogs of war”… the enemy whose head must be cut off.

Journalists are now victims of online violence — targeted especially at women reporters. The lynch mob on social media frequently uses sexualised language such as “slut”, “whore” “bitch”, and are regularly threatened with rape.

It’s an all-too orchestrated campaign to threaten journalists into silence — create that chilling effect where journalists begin to self-censor by ignoring stories implicating politicians in wrongdoing.

We should all be concerned as this all weakens the lifeblood of our democracy.

The threats are not only on Twitter — they land on our phones, in our hands.

In April 2019 I received this troubling WhatsApp message from a prominent politician. Part of it read:

We fought for our freedom and we lost many lives. Dialogue came when our enemy had no other choice. Freedom Of speech will happen when you patriarchal capitalists will no longer run the streets. Our fight is a just one we will win this. You are respectfully entitled to be right-wingers I have chosen not to be one of you.”

I have been called a number of things: a white monopoly stooge, described as a helpless woman with no thinking capacity, but I have to say that “right-wing”, putting me in the same grouping as Eugene Terre’Blanche, was just taking it a step too far.

We are facing a difficult time, but we dare not falter — we have to draw on the strength of the journalists of yesteryear who risked all to be the voice of the aspirations of a nation.

Our armour should continue to be our ethical, factual and balanced reporting.

The reality is that apologies on major political stories, allegations of journalists being bribed, stories being planted, have not helped our cause.

But we are hoping that the Satchwell inquiry into media ethics will hold us all accountable and more importantly contribute to strengthening ethical, quality journalism as we rebuild a relationship of trust with our communities.

Media veteran Bra Joe Thloloe told Daily Maverick that we must rise above the noise:

There is a huge place for good journalism. Credibility of publications has become much more crucial. The good will survive.”

Ensuring the critical, independent and investigative press that Nelson Mandela called for is not only the responsibility of journalists, academics, media freedom activists or just Sanef — corporate South Africa also has to contribute.

We thank you for continuing to support our cause and your presence here shows your commitment.

We, however, believe you should be doing more — especially when choosing where you spend your money.

Newsrooms are shrinking because advertising revenue has declined drastically due to tough trading conditions, technological disruptions and a weak economy. Companies are spending their advertising budgets with Google and Facebook — and the sad truth is that that much-needed revenue is not filtering into our newsrooms.

The scary figures revealed by the State of the Newsroom report by Wits University say that the number of journalism jobs has halved in 10 years. So a decade ago we had 10,000 employed journalists, but today we only have 5,000.

What does that mean for diversity of views — choices for the consumer — telling the whole South African story?

We estimate that 80% of all online advertising goes to these foreign companies who don’t even pay tax in this country.

The other danger is of corporates unknowingly funding fake news.

This week I saw a fake news post that was widely circulated. It had a headline that screamed:

I slept with 1,400 girls, impregnated 600 in six African countries, French tourist recounts.”

I counted at least six adverts by local companies in this fake story — a mobile company selling their fibre connection, an exclusive resort in KwaZulu-Natal, a consulting firm that promises to resolve your troubles with your municipal bill, and so on.

This story is sensational, but we know the role of fake news in American elections and corporate South Africa must take a stand.

Choose the trusted news platforms when you spend your money — it is these brands that exposed State Capture, that shine a light on corruption and called to account those who were responsible for the death of Life Esidimeni victims and the thievery of Steinhoff or the VBS bank heist.

With newsrooms becoming younger and younger, this much-needed revenue from advertising could also contribute to the training of journalists.

We need journalists who can read annual financial reports and understand what it means when we say Eskom threatens our survival as a nation.

As you dig deep, remember Mandela’s words that the critical media which is the lifeblood of our democracy must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour.

To my comrades, let’s remember the rich and selfless legacy left by those before us.

Journalism is facing a legitimacy crisis. It is in survival mode and its demise will have devastating consequences for our democracy. Our new struggle is to remind this generation and the next that the struggles and pains of the generation before cannot be in vain.

Our own late Raymond Louw — who we lost this year — said “ there is a new breed of journalists that stands up to authority! Let’s continue the struggle”. DM

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