Opinionista Styli Charalambous 3 May 2021

Press Freedom Day: SA’s media problem is not lack of freedom, but lack of quality

At the end of a Unesco seminar held in Windhoek in 1991, a declaration of press freedom principles was adopted that would go on to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

On the 30th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration this year, media outlets, civil society institutions and media activists will reflect on the state of press freedom and other systemic issues facing journalists, and the profession of journalism, around the world.

Each year, the publication of the World Press Freedom Index is meant to inform and hopefully inspire or shame governments into remedial action, but I doubt it makes it into Vladimir Putin’s daily briefings.

I read this year’s World Press Freedom Index list alongside the World Happiness Report to see how the top 10 compared with one another. Seven of the top 10 countries appeared on both lists (and yes, those overachieving Scandinavians are all there). I won’t dive into the perils of confusing correlation and causation and I am certainly not saying press freedom equates to a happy society. It’s more likely that when governments get things right, they have less reason to try to influence the media and they can tackle things such as inequality.

South Africa fares worse on the World Happiness Report than it does on the Press Freedom Index. You can probably guess the reasons we have to be an unhappy bunch and may be surprised to see us score decently on the Press Freedom Index, where we’re adjudged to be “fairly good”.

Where some countries have passed regulations giving them powers to muzzle the press (UK) and others imprison journalists as a national pastime (Ethiopia), our situation is a little more complex and less explicit. With a single party in power, with government budgets at its disposal, influencing the media can be done with telephone calls or threats to cancel government business.

When ANN7 and The New Age were set up to peddle propaganda and siphon off government budgets, they were free to do so. And when Independent Newspapers pulled the same trick, they were also free to do so. South Africa’s media problem is not one of lack of freedom but rather one of lack of quality and coverage.

The lack of financial freedom has meant shrinking, juniorised newsrooms and news deserts over much of the country. Newspaper operations that were once responsible for much of the reporting from cities and towns are no more, or have succumbed to publishing the whims of egotistical proprietors under staff reporter bylines. Swathes of talent have been shed and the industry is caught in a death spiral.

The systemic issues we face mean that we have to look at the environment as a whole. How we can improve investment incentives in the media industry, recoup the lost talent and encourage efforts to continuously evolve and improve our journalism? Financial freedom and press freedom are opposite sides of the same coin. We cannot worry about press freedom if no public service media exists.

There are a few rare cases of hope, and we count ourselves fortunate to be part of that cohort. In many ways, thanks to all of you reading this column and the others who supported the Daily Maverick cause along the way. Because of you, we get to mark another Press Freedom Day. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • “overachieving Scandinavians”-makes me wonder if like the rest of the ‘west’, they (following imperialist Brits) were as pre-occupied with conquest(at times parading as civilizing) other indigenous cultures/people? While we proclaimed press freedom- authoritarians were hard at work undermining it!

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