It’s the World Press Survival Day as we know it
It is the simplest of truths that should be self-evident, but here it is anyway: you cannot have a democracy without accountability. In South Africa, it is only the media that can reliably provide this public service. News media is the remaining edifice, the final chance we have as a country to make the criminals of all shades and political inclinations face the accountability they deserve.
(NB: We do know it is actually World Press Freedom Day, but hey.)
Today we, the news media, take our annual look at press freedom around the world.
We will talk about the shrinking space for real journalism in almost every country and territory around the world.
We will talk about the increasing dangers to our profession.
We will honour our dead, wounded, incarcerated, harassed, threatened and impoverished colleagues.
We will appeal to the autocrats of the world to find their humanity and stop endangering the lives of the very people who also happen to be the greatest threat to their continuing power.
We will call upon the social networks to protect free speech and work hard to stop the spread of disinformation on their platforms. We will not forget to ask them to put an end to online violence, especially against our female colleagues. We will have plenty of examples that show clearly how online violence jumps into the real world with devastating consequences.
Here, we will issue a call for the advertising industry to channel some of the money they are gushing towards Google and Facebook, billions that are leaving South African shores untaxed, towards local news media.
We will appeal to fake news media to stop the lies and consider the long-term damage they are causing. We might even ask them, politely, not to laugh straight back into our faces.
Does anyone else see all of this as so depressingly pointless as I do?
There will be dinners, cocktail parties and panels that may remind us of the last days of Rome.
(See the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this weekend in Washington, DC, and the orbiting parties — excellent programming, Trevor Noah’s supreme address, great quotes, all protocols and ideals observed. The barbarians at the gates have no shame though — and they have weaponised lies.)
Like in this by now classic Madam & Eve cartoon, one of my absolute favourites, we will inject strong and well-measured words into the ether, feel good about who we are and what we represent this Tuesday.
On Wednesday though, we will wake up to face our respective countries’ realities.
One of those realities binding us all is the decline that is now starting to look inexorable, bar a few rich Nordic countries.
Another overarching truth is that we will not make much headway appealing to bad people’s better angels.
The autocrats will not become less autocratic/brutal and find their soft spot for journalists.
Social networks will care about truth and decency as much as they cared about closing Duduzile Zuma’s Twitter account in the middle of KZN’s deadly riots.
Most media buyers will not even know there was World Press Freedom Day — their job is to squeeze the last penny of action out of their budgets, and Facebook and Google will serve just fine. News media? Not really their problem.
Voters will not become media-literate overnight and will still struggle to recognise what is fake or not, what is truth or lie, what is insane or reasonable.
We need to talk about real action after this World Press Freedom Day — or whatever is left of quality media will soon celebrate it in physical, digital and commercial exile.
We, the remaining news media, must stop just complaining about the increasingly awful conditions we work in and do something about it.
Journalists in every country have their own specific cross to bear. In South Africa, most of our colleagues do not have much hope of earning a decent living while exposing themselves to serious threats — to their lives and livelihoods. News media is on the verge of collapsing — just ask any editor if they could do with five times more reporters than they have — trust me, every single one would respond in the affirmative.
The problems of global, and South Africa’s, media are indeed large and numerous. We’re trapped in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole while, among other things, under the surface, violent rioting was planned and brought to its bloody execution in KwaZulu-Natal, and the virus of xenophobia was allowed to spread almost unhindered. We’re simply not equipped for such a consistent onslaught from so many corners and — in the words of my business partner, Styli Charalambous — we’re expected to fight for truth using peashooters while the other side has access to AK-47s.
Many times I’ve been asked a simple, yet uninformed question: why do we actually need news media?
My response is always simple: imagine society as a table whose weight is resting on four legs (estates) — lawmaking, the executive, the judiciary, with the fourth one being the media. You remove the media and the whole thing collapses, right?
In a normal world, that is absolutely the case — the centre cannot hold if there is no way of making a democratic decision about who should govern us.
And yet. There is an entirely reasonable argument to make that the lawmaking and executive branches in South Africa have already mostly collapsed, while the judiciary is also under great threat. Makes the collapse of the media estate somewhat less comparatively apocalyptic, what with everyone around falling too?
This is why we should ensure that the media leg is fortified; after all, the media’s function is not only to monitor and tell truth to power but also to ensure accountability, a vital function for a society in decline.
In South Africa, a large percentage of the top elected executives who populate the first two estates have either directly been involved in crime or have provided cover for adjacent criminal organisations. SA’s Parliament has been found in breach of its own Constitution. The executive appears unable to curb, deter, investigate or charge the great majority of wrongdoers. The judiciary cannot leave their chambers to search for criminals — not their job.
News media is the remaining edifice, the final chance we have as a country to make the criminals of all shades and political inclinations face the accountability they deserve.
Consider a time without news media:
- Would you have preferred not to know how the Guptas captured South Africa — even now, five years later, this country struggles to cope with the legacy of State Capture?
- Ace Magashule would have been seen as the likely next leader of the country.
- Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu would have been able to accuse others of corruption without being laughed at.
- Iqbal Survé would have raised tens of billions more from the PIC.
- VAT would have to be at least 20% after SARS’ income plummets under the Moyane/Bain restructure.
- Zweli Mkhize would be seen by ordinary citizens as a credible and desirable candidate for any high office.
- Bosasa would still be very much there.
- Russians would be breaking ground for their new nuclear power stations in lavish ceremonies attended by David Mahlobo. Much of the fuel would have been connected to Guptas.
- Duduzane Zuma would have started his chase for the ANC power. (Wait, that is actually happening, apologies. Scratch this one.)
- And SOEs… What SOEs?
…the list is long.
Without credible news media, every single one of these, and so many more, would never have been uncovered and published.
It is the simplest of truths that should be self-evident, but here it is anyway: you cannot have a democracy without accountability. In South Africa, it is only the media that can reliably provide this public service.
So I call upon the sectors of our and global society that cannot provide accountability to help the one that actually can:
To the SA government and Parliament
(These points as per Styli Charalambous)
- Work with the Treasury to make it convenient and tax-efficient to invest in media or even just to buy monthly subscriptions, and make those contributions zero-rated for VAT purposes.
- Add Press Council-accredited media to the list of qualifying enterprises for CSI purposes and incentivise corporates to support media through advertising spending.
- Support the journalism education fund.
I would also add here:
- Make threats to journalists illegal.
To the SA business community
This would be a good time to start understanding that you cannot conduct business in a country that is sliding into a failed state. ANY media investment, donation or grant, even if not immediately tax-efficient, is the best way to ensure your business has a future.
Not-in-my-backyard logic will only ensure there is no backyard any more.
SA business raised its voice against injustice before. What stops you from doing it again?
Even if all you want to do is make a profit for your shareholders, would it not be more achievable if the country around you, I don’t know… exists?
Time to wake up. The smell will shock you.
To international media-supporting foundations
Please reconsider the instinct that the only good journalists in the developing countries are the ones who are harassed/imprisoned by the autocratic authorities, or starving.
Investigative journalism is incredibly important, but it is also not the only thing that matters in these latitudes — establishing trust with wider audiences is a long-term gruelling project that then provides trusted platforms for investigations to make the greatest impact.
While it is wonderful to support individual important projects of whichever flavour is popular at any given time, the centre must also hold. Or we’re left with nothing.
We, the news media, may be in a tough spot these days, but with all the problems facing local democracies and plummeting accountability, it is still relatively cheap (a few fighter jets cost more than fixing the media problem globally) and relatively easy to sort our issues, so we can help pull everyone out of the maelstrom in which the world finds itself.
We need the grown-ups to take responsibility and provide leadership. And we need our own colleagues to stop chasing clicks and Twitter stories to concentrate on what is important: serving our communities.
We need everyone to hear the call. The time for action is here, and we’d better act.
“Come back with your shield — or on it,” Spartan mothers would say to their sons as they were going into battle. We, the news media, are right now our civilisation’s final shield. Never forget that. DM