Alet Janse van Rensburg

We are all dying of a broken heart

2017-07-04 13:41
Supporters chanting 'Hlaudi Must Fall!' outside the SABC headquarters in Johannesburg  (Mpho Raborife, News24)

Supporters chanting 'Hlaudi Must Fall!' outside the SABC headquarters in Johannesburg (Mpho Raborife, News24)

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Being a journalist these days is a tough gig.

I’m not talking about the online harassment and physical threats and having to compete with the most sensational fake news, although I’ll get to that.

The daily pressures journalists face are immense and have been compounded by the shift from traditional to online news platforms.

If you’re working in breaking news, most days consist of rushing from one story to the next, collecting information, interpreting that information and relaying it to your audience in real time. At best, the most difficult part of this process is keeping your bearings straight while speed typing the story in 140 character deliveries. At worst, there’s also someone trying to intimidate you, trick you or withhold important information from you – all this while you’re taking pictures, recording video and trying to keep your cellphone battery alive.

The media is a helluva competitive industry. I have a boss who likes to say journalism is the most competitive industry there is. Publishers compete with each other for a share of the advertising market. Our publications compete against titles from other publishers for readers, listeners and viewers, as well as against our sister publications in-house. Journalists compete, not only with journalists from rival publications, but against their own colleagues.

We used to contend for scoops and front page leads, but these days we also compete for breaking news tweets, page views, unique browsers, subscribers, followers, likes, retweets, front of camera time, podcast downloads, book deals and the occasional award. Ever since President Zuma fired former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene late in the evening, no political reporter is allowed to sleep with their phone on silent.

On the production side, things are equally tough. Production teams are small, under constant pressure to work faster and are somehow always the first to get axed when the belt needs to be tightened. No wonder hundreds of employees staged a protest last week over the New York Times’ decision to effectively halve the newspaper’s copy desk, a team that includes more than 100 copy editors.

In South Africa, all of this is made worse by the nature of the news that we cover. Constantly bearing witness to murders, accidents, rapes and other attacks takes its toll. Closely following the news can feel like witnessing a train smash in slow motion, and while the rest of South Africa can look away, our journalists can’t. It can be utterly demoralising, overwhelming and frankly, traumatising.

We all knew the ANC’s elective conference in December meant that 2017 would be a rough year politically, but nothing could prepare us for the flood of scandals and shocking behaviour we’ve witnessed this year: From the disgraceful display of disrespect for our institutions at the opening of Parliament, to the recall of former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and the eleventh Cabinet reshuffle under Jacob Zuma, through to Helen Zille’s colonialism tweets and an economic downgrade, to the cherry on top, the #GuptaLeaks. (And it’s only July!)

Each of these events requires breaking news stories, tweets, Facebook posts, follow-up stories, analysis, columns, video, infographics, and more often than not triggers further investigations. It’s a never-ending, unrelenting production of the theatre of the absurd with no hope of a curtain call to end the show.

SABC producer Suna Venter died last week of a broken heart. It’s hard not to see why. Aside from the day to day pressures she faced on the job, she was harassed, threatened, abducted, tortured and lived in fear for her life. She was not alone in this.

Huffington Post editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee writes of how she has been sexually harassed by paid Twitter users and bots whose aim it is to discredit her as a lapdog of 'white monopoly capital'.

News24 investigative journalist Caryn Dolley had to walk around with bodyguards for weeks after she was threatened by underworld mafia bosses.

Last week, Andile Mngxitama and his organisation Black First Land First (BLF) tried to intimidate a senior editor by protesting outside his house, and sent out a 'hit list' of the journalists on their radar for being in the pocket of 'white monopoly capital'. The SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) on Tuesday had to apply for an urgent interdict against BLF to stop their intimidation of these journalists.

For as long as there has been news, there have been attacks on the media. Business Day editor Tim Cohen ironically points out that BLF’s anti-democratic behaviour is reminiscent of how the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) used to intimidate journalists.

These attacks are attempts by people who have a lot to lose, to silence the people, to sway opinion away from the incriminating truth and to minimise open public discourse. It may never be tolerated.

It is one thing to say that you disagree with the facts, or that you interpret them differently. But it is another thing entirely to discard the truth and replace it with purposefully misleading, false reasoning and fake news. Personal attacks against journalists are a violation of the right of the public to be informed.

And so we owe it to Suna Venter, Peter Bruce and every other journalist who works in the most difficult of circumstances to expose the truth and keep the public informed to speak out in the harshest terms against the forces trying to capture our truth.

We must be vigilant against the creeping threats to our democratic freedoms. "All waves, no matter how huge, start as rough spots – cats' paws – on the surface of the water," Sebastian Junger wrote. Let us not wake up one day when it is already too late.

 - Janse van Rensburg is opinions editor at News24.

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Read more on:    media freedom  |  harassment  |  blf  |  guptas  |  freedom of expression

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