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Opinionista

We’re a world away from Black Wednesday 1977, but the powerful are still trying to shut up the media in 2023

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Glenda Daniels is associate professor of media studies, Wits University and is Sanef’s Gauteng convenor. These views are her own.

Intimidation, harassment and violence – attacks on the media by the state and private sector continue.

The 2023 media freedom landscape in South Africa is unrecognisable from Black Wednesday, 19 October 1977 – except for one thing.

Today’s challenges include AI-generated content that can create distrust of media, attacks on journalists by private and public sectors, and online trolling and bullying.

The issue remaining from apartheid days is interdicts against publishing – though judges have been on the side of the Constitution and media freedom in 99% of cases.

In 1977, the apartheid regime targeted black organisations and journalists. On Black Wednesday, about a month after black consciousness leader Steve Biko was murdered in detention, then justice minister Jimmy Kruger arrested editors and banned The World, Weekend World and Pro Veritate, along with 19 black consciousness organisations.

I was in primary school in the 1970s when the Security Branch was feared. Anti-apartheid activists whispered, were followed, used codenames and hid books as censorship was rife. There were detentions and bannings. The regime used bugs and interdicted newspapers.

Alternative press such as the Weekly Mail, New Nation, Vrye Weekblad, South and Grassroots in the 1980s had to constantly duck and dive.

Now ducking and diving is different. Last month, there were instances of distressing behaviour by the state and private sector.

Targeted

On 19 September, a month before we celebrate Media Freedom Day, security personnel at Standard Bank manhandled Daily Maverick reporter Lerato Mutsila as she was covering an Extinction Rebellion protest at the bank’s Rosebank, Johannesburg, headquarters. Officials deleted photos and videos from her phone and physically removed her.

Read more in Daily Maverick: New members add to the list of BRICS regimes that have scant respect for media freedom

Daily Maverick accepted the bank’s apology. The South African National Editors’ Forum received from the bank a commitment to media freedom and a vow of no repeat.

Then, eNCA reporter Hloni Mtimkulu was pushed out of a Post Office branch while she was interviewing government grant beneficiaries about grant delays and non-payment. The government and Post Office must be embarrassed about stories of the suffering of people not getting their grants. These might be measly, but they are some people’s only livelihoods.

In a third incident, journalist Anna Majavu from Grocott’s Mail in the Eastern Cape was harassed while covering a case at the Makhanda Magistrates’ Court.

The police did not like Majavu’s reporting on a murder case in which the accused was a leader of the anti-crime group.

The targets are sometimes threatened with rape and murder. They are body shamed by political parties.

Majavu writes: “… while interviewing the group’s lawyer Charles Stamper, inside the court on 19 September, members of the anti-crime group and their supporters told me to leave the court and then surrounded me, trying to grab my phone and notebook. I was forced to run away after members of the group angrily told me they would never allow me to write about their case.”

All these acts of intimidation, harassment and violence must be condemned. They come on the back of strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) actions, including Jacob Zuma’s private prosecution of journalist Karyn Maughan, who was in the high court dock for publishing information already in the public domain about Zuma’s health.

Other interdicts against publishing this year include the “Moti Files” case against amaBhungane. Though an interdict against publishing was first granted, it was quickly overturned by Deputy Judge President of the Gauteng High Court Roland Sutherland.

Sutherland slapped the Moti Group with punitive costs and called the case a most egregious abuse of court process.

We have seen trolling and online bullying of women journalists in the past decade – Maughan, Ferial Haffajee, Qaanitah Hunter, Sli Masikane, Lindsay Dentlinger, Pauli van Wyk, Marianne Thamm, Ziyanda Ngcobo, Tshidi Madia, Julia Madibogo and Carien du Plessis among them.

The targets are sometimes threatened with rape and murder. They are body shamed by political parties.

Media freedom is, of course, affected by serious job losses in journalism, a trend that started more than 10 years ago. It is a media freedom and diversity concern because beat reporting has by and large disappeared and subeditors’ chairs have not been filled following various waves of retrenchments.

Adding to these woes, the media has to contend with generative artificial intelligence, or AI, creating content at the tap of a key. Will this mean human journalists and jobs are lost? Not to mention public trust?

In an already disordered world of fake news this is a huge threat to media freedom.

Media Freedom Day, on 19 October 2023, is a world away from Black Wednesday 1977. But some things remain the same. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front page 14 October

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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Is it likely that the AI generated ‘news’ will also carry the names (identity) of its author ? Elon …. or Donald …. or several variations thereof come to mind !

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Well as an avid absorber of some ‘media’ … on freedom day I saw a full frontal attack attack on a BBC presenter by a Israeli knesset member, for the BBC for it NOT becoming a fully fledged mouthpiece of his regime and its narrative ! The docile acceptance of this instruction by the presenter shocked me to the core . But then … I guess the original imperial power (UK) and its successor the militarist US with the rest of the ‘west’ in tow .. have this notion that they are the only ones who know the ‘truth’ and also actually get to decide what it is !

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