MAHLATSE MAHLASE: Defending media freedom in SA is a continuous battle

At an event to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, the following speech was delivered by South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) secretary general Mahlatse Mahlase.

We join the world in marking World Press Freedom Day – an opportunity to take a moment to reflect on the long and sometimes arduous journey to an independent but protected media. It is also an opportunity for all of us – government, opposition, civil society, citizens and journalists - to commit to doing our part to ensure that journalists do their work without fear or favour – contributing to strengthening our deepening democracy.

It was on this day in 1991, that journalists from across the continent stood up to demand and chart a plan to an independent and pluralistic African media. The journalists were standing up against being persecuted for speaking truth to power. Many lived in constant fear of imprisonment and even death. Their deep commitment and desire to bring to an end the gagging of media by dictatorship and autocratic regimes in parts of the continent became a catalyst for reform here in Africa and the world.

In 1991 when the journalists gathered in Windhoek – leading to the Windhoek declaration - South Africa was on the cusp of democracy that promised a new world that would bring to an end the apartheid regime that tortured, arrested and banished journalists for daring to expose the regime’s violation of human rights and crimes against humanity.

Thirty years on the world is a different place. South Africa now has one of the most celebrated constitutions and today we celebrate Section 16 of the Constitution that states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression – which includes freedom of the press and other media.”

The founders of our Constitution were clear – that the media had to be protected to ensure we move away from any attempts by any other government of the day to silence media if they did not act as a mouthpiece for their propaganda.

Today we celebrate the bravery of South African journalists. They are part of the holding pillars of our democracy – shining the mirror on our flawed society, bedevilled by inequality, thievery and an overall betrayal of the promises of democracy.

It has not been an easy journey. We have been called unpatriotic, racists, enemies, spies etc by those who want their shameful actions to remain out of the public eye.

Today we sit and listen to the state capture Inquiry, hearing in detail what journalists have exposed in the past decade. We are asking those in power why they chose not to see and not to act as the media exposed the corruption day after day.

Because the truth is that if they chose not to turn a blind eye, the cost could perhaps have not been as great as it is. Just maybe we couldn’t be here - unable to support those in need as COVID-19 wreaks havoc to livelihoods. Our state-owned entities would not be in shambles, shedding jobs and threatening what’s left of our economy and perhaps many more would have decent homes and access to basic necessities like water and shelter. Because that is the real cost of silence in the face of wanton looting.

While we have the media’s rights enshrined in our Constitution, we have learnt in the 27-year journey of our democracy that even when guaranteed, freedom still needs defenders.

Apart from the politicians who threaten journalists, the advent of technology has also brought new threats like the often coordinated cyber bullying of journalists. Social media is supposed to be a platform of engagement that could be a great instrument of giving people a voice as they interact with politicians and even journalists directly. But in parts it has become a cesspool of insults, threats, misogyny - women journalists are being sexualised – and it is being used as a weapon to silence journalists, with chilling effects on especially younger journalists.

While some of the culprits are bots, we have seen politicians actively agitating for the assault of journalists and even when the attacks are done in their name, they have instead of calling for an end, savoured them.

Social media has also been used to spread conspiracies to tarnish journalists to weaken the critical journalism they produce.

The United Nations plan of action on the safety of journalists warns that every attack on a journalist distorts reality by creating a climate of fear and self-censorship.

At this time, the biggest threat to journalism is job insecurity for practitioners – the financial pressures that have plagued the media industry have been exacerbated by COVID-19. The regulations put in place to try curb the spread of the pandemic saw already reduced advertising revenue nearly disappear almost immediately.

Those who were already on the brink couldn’t survive and were forced to shut down. Many others remain open, but have had to retrench to keep themselves financially viable or journalists have had to continue working with salary cuts.

An investigation done by Sanef at the beginning of lockdown last year found that as many as 700 journalists lost their jobs while some magazine publishers and 80 small print publications were forced to shut down.

Yes, the journalists have lost a livelihood and will join the millions on the unemployment queues – but the biggest impact is on our democracy. It means our quest for multiplicity of voices and diversity of coverage has suffered a major blow.

Community publications are able to shine a light in the rural parts of our country - most neglected - and hold accountable the local government authorities. They give those in the small towns, a much-needed voice in their own languages in our country where the loudest dominate mainstream media in English.

The absence of those community publications will be felt even more now as we head to the local government elections. That is the coalface of government and the absence of delivery of services has been felt most.

But smaller newsrooms even in mainstream publications means that some stories will just not see light of day while investigative journalism will shrink.

The financial pressures facing the industry has seen a shift to online. It has opened new opportunities for the industry and alternatives for audiences. We see the number of people reading news online continuing to increase and this can only get better given the number of people with smartphones in our country. Many have argued that this is the answer, but the financial model is yet to be perfected.

Access also remains a major challenge for the majority. Data costs are a barrier and subscription walls are also going up as media houses fight for survival. The subscription walls are necessary because good journalism needs to be funded.

While the picture sometimes looks grim, it is not hopeless, nor should we feel helpless.

We need to reposition the role of journalism in our democracy.

First, it is important that we all advocate for the work of journalists as critical to the functioning of our democracy. We have to see and shout to the rooftops that their work is in public service.

And it starts with everyone standing up in defence of journalists. It cannot be left to organisations like Sanefs or Media Monitoring Africa and other lobby group to face off with those who want to escape scrutiny.

We need more voices to protect our journalists, to condemn politicians who think it’s okay for journalists to be groped or pushed around, politicians who refuse to condemn supporters who threaten to rape and beat up journalists, or those that label journalists apartheid spies.

If the work of journalists is a public good, then society must stand in its defence, as media freedom is about our South Africa that we all want to flourish. It is about the right of South Africans to be informed and enable their participation in their democracy.

We also need new funding models that support journalism as a public good. We have been looking at various models. We have seen in some countries government support to media houses to protect their sustainability, and importantly, that support has not diluted their independence.

Tax rebates have helped keep many media houses open and allowed for journalists to continue doing their work.

We are also hoping that others like telecoms players will come to the party and ensure that credible news platforms that are regulated by the Press Council are zero rated to allow for wider access.

As Sanef we have held a mirror to ourselves. We have taken the unprecedented step to investigate ethical lapses in our own newsrooms because we believed we can’t hold others accountable and not do so ourselves.

It was an acknowledgement that while there are those who are driving a wedge between us and the South African public, we have not always done right, weakening the critical trust relationship with those we serve.

We have concluded the ethics inquiry led by Judge Kathleen Satchwell and veteran journalists Rich Mkhondo and Nikiwe Bikitsha. It has provided us an opportunity to introspect and we are now looking at a five-year ethics plan to ensure a continuous drive for journalism to meet the highest ethical standards. The plan will be debated and adopted at an ethics and credibility conference to be held later in May.

We have already held a series of webinars looking at the 69 recommendations by the Satchwell Report and debated them to help inform our plan. Some of the recommendations are beyond Sanef’s mandate but demand various sectors of society to do their part.

As we mark this World Press Freedom Day, let us remember the long road we have travelled, the battles we have won and the challenges that lie ahead.

More importantly, let us commit ourselves to ensuring a free, independent, thriving and sustainable media.

Mahlatse Mahlase is secretary general of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and group editor-in-chief at Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter: @hlatseentle

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