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"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”
The genesis of this quote dates back a century or so ago and was later popularly attributed to George Orwell.
The quote is as apt today as it was back then. It explains the traditional function of the media, but also hints at the level of risk that comes with publishing information that others want to cover up.
Journalists have always known the risks of paying the price for digging for dirt, especially in countries with repressive media laws.
Death and harassment
Journalists in South Africa have operated within a free press environment since democracy in 1994, so the risks here have seemed small in comparison to countries such as Turkey, where 150 journalists are in jail.
About a month ago, the local media industry began grappling publicly with the proliferation of online fake news, accompanied by the bullying of journalists, particularly those involved in #GuptaLeaks revelations.
The industry has since been shaken by the tragic death of SABC radio journalist Suna Venter, one of the “SABC8” who exposed the reign of terror at the public broadcaster. According to her family, she died of “broken heart syndrome” after a year of stress, threats and harassment.
Venter’s death coincided with physical harassment and threats by Black First Land First against journalists who have been exposing state capture.
Now that the media industry has been confronted with real risks that extend beyond name-calling, newsrooms are taking steps to ensure targeted journalists get the support that they need to continue doing their jobs.
Besides the risks involved, it is tough going trying to pin down the facts these days because of the sophisticated machinery of public relations spin and infestation of fake news.
It will be hard for the corrupted to understand that journalists are not motivated by the same principles that they are guided by.
These journalists will not be bought or swayed, although in any newsroom there are always a few who take chances with the code of ethics and others who have ulterior motives.
In the 1980s, for example, I worked in The Star newsroom in Johannesburg with crime reporter Craig Kotze, who later confirmed our suspicions that he had been operating as a spy for the apartheid government all along.
Thanks to the efforts of a tenacious bunch of investigative reporters and editors, information that others hope to suppress has been seeping out, from the Passenger Rail Agency of SA train fiasco and Watergate exposé to the SABC horror show and unfolding Guptagate revelations.
Some are veteran journalists who exposed apartheid atrocities. Others are much younger, some even from the born-free generation.
These journalists often struggle to make ends meet, they shun offers of better-paid, cushy public relations jobs from government and monopoly capital, not to mention bribes and gifts.
They are a diverse bunch, motivated by an old-fashioned desire to muckrake, without fear or favour. And they won’t be silenced.
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