Guest Column

South African journalism is alive and well

2017-05-03 09:05
Esmaré Weideman, CEO of Media24.

Esmaré Weideman, CEO of Media24.

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Esmaré Weideman

Sipho Masondo is a marked man. As an investigative reporter at City Press, Media24’s Sunday newspaper renowned for its exposés on corruption and maladministration, he has been warned on several occasions that his life and those of his wife and young family are in danger.

He has also been offered numerous bribes. Having blown open what has become known as City Press’s “Watergate scandal” over a year ago – an exposé on tender irregularities with a multi-billion rand water project in Giyani in Limpopo – he was offered half a million rand by powerful figures implicated in the investigation. For his probe into corruption in Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project the “price tag” was R3 million and a job as ministerial spokesperson.

His scoop on how the minister of water affairs and sanitation’s boyfriend called the shots in her office led to a relentless “paid Twitter” campaign attacking his integrity. He took this far more seriously than the threats to his safety, which continued after he received an SMS saying that nameless officials at water affairs would stop at nothing to silence him.

For his most recent probe into alleged misappropriation of funds at the Bophelo Beneficiary’s Fund – up to R560 million of mine workers’ pension money seems to have disappeared – he was brazenly told to “name his price” for dropping the story. The article appeared on the front pages of City Press and Rapport last Sunday. Sipho has diligently informed his editors of these attempts to silence him and is under private protection.

News24’s Pieter-Louis Myburgh, who received the prestigious Taco Kuiper Prize for investigative journalism last year for his series of revelations in Rapport about the goings-on at the country’s rail agency Prasa, shrugs off the “one or two threats” which have forced him to no longer walk to work in the morning.

Suzanne Venter, the Rapport journalist awarded this year’s Taco Kuiper Prize for her exposé of the Esidimeni health scandal, tells how she has been chased away at press conferences and her sources, many of them too scared to speak on the record, threatened with death. The intimidation of ordinary, vulnerable people is much worse than being bullied as a journalist, she says. Their stories must be told.

The Sunday Times’s Mzilikazi wa Afrika has been the subject of a smear campaign for years, most recently for exposing irregular Eskom tenders to the tune of more than R1 billion. He has received several death threats and is currently under 24-hour protection.

SABC journalist Vuyo Mvoko has been labelled a traitor and threatened with death for his reporting on dodgy dealings at the national broadcaster. 

These are just some of the blackmail threats and bribery attempts received by journalists in recent times. There are many more. As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day (3 May), let’s pause a moment to salute the bravery of South Africa’s editors and journalists who fearlessly shine the light on corruption, bribery and wrongdoing – and in an era of fake news and unprecedented smear campaigns in the run-up to the ANC’s elective conference in December have to be extra alert not to fall prey to ulterior motives, misinformation and propaganda. Our editors tell me they now spend more time investigating stories they never publish than those they do.

South African journalism is alive and well. Yes, publishers worldwide – here too – are under enormous pressure to cut back on costs due to the decline in print advertising and circulation revenue, the mainstay of any traditional news operation. Yes, newsrooms are smaller – and younger – as a result. (All the Media24 journalists mentioned above are in their thirties.) Yes, we are all worried about the impact this is having on the quality of journalism in our country. (Yet we are regularly awarded the biggest share of the prizes for quality journalism in South Africa.)

And yes, we sometimes get it wrong. The recent furore over an anti-white, fake blog published by Huffpost South Africa, of which Media24 is the licence holder, was a devastating blow not only to Huffpost but to Media24 and journalism at large. Trustworthy journalism is the currency media companies trade in. No one is pained more than us if we get things wrong.

But there is a lot about media to celebrate as well. Our newsrooms mostly produce sterling work day in and day out. While print media is in decline in the face of digital disruption here and abroad, our digital news properties are growing at the rate of knots, making good journalism accessible to millions more who no longer read in print or who never have, bringing our readers breaking news, video and analysis at a relentless pace.

24.com, the digital media house of Media24, now has 17 million monthly users. News24 alone has an average of 250 million page views a month, sometimes much more – like when news broke that President Jacob Zuma had fired Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

A whopping 80% of our content is read on cellphones – the “newspaper” of the future – even higher than in other parts of the world.

Our content is diverse and caters for diverse audiences. Our editors know that at Media24, South Africa’s leading publishing company, editorial independence is sacrosanct. They are free from management interference, despite the pressure from many in government and the private sector on management to “make your editors toe the line”.

The structures which regulate South Africa’s media function well. The Press Council, the system of co-regulation (by the media and the public) which includes the press ombud and appeal mechanisms overseen by a retired judge, diligently guards the quality, accuracy and accountability of our journalistic trade.

There are also some warning lights. The financial viability of the Press Council is under threat. One major media company has withdrawn from the watchdog body; others have never subscribed, placing the onus on those remaining publishers to carry the added financial burden they can ill afford.

The alternative is a system that will do irreparable damage to the independence of South Africa’s media – the much-touted Media Appeals Tribunal which will place media regulation at the mercy of the state. In the ANC policy documents released in the run up to the organisation’s policy conference next month (June), this threat has reared its ugly head again.

The ANC cites inadequate funding of the Press Council and “insufficient punitive measures” against those in breach of the Press Code as reasons to pursue what it calls “independent regulation” in the form of a Media Appeals Tribunal. It intends commissioning research into the best models for “independent regulation of print media” prior to a parliamentary probe expected to take place in August, according to its documents.

This should concern every media practitioner, civil organisation and South African who values a strong and independent media – a right protected in our Constitution. We should all rally against state control over the media.

The media may not always get it right, but much more often than not, they do. We celebrate World Press Freedom Day with pride, a good dose of introspection and enormous love and respect for the work we do and the profession we serve.

Hats off to journalism’s Siphos and Suzannes, the unsung men and women who work under enormous pressure to check facts and correct grammar virtually 24 hours a day, and their editors who make that final call to press the “publish” button.

- Esmaré Weideman is Chief Executive Officer of Media24.

* This article has been updated since its original publication.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

Read more on:    esmaré weideman  |  press freedom
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