Mahlatse Mahlase | The advent of technology has brought with it new threats for journalism

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Monday marked World Press Freedom Day. SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) secretary-general Mahlatse Mahlase delivered a speech during a webinar, hosted by the University of Johannesburg's Faculty of Humanities, and outlined some of the industry's biggest challenges. Here is the full speech.

We join the world in marking World Press Freedom Day which is 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 to the gagging of media by dictatorship and autocratic regimes in parts of the continent became a catalyst for reform here in Africa and the rest of 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 to 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, bedeviled 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; if they chose not to turn a blind eye, the cost could perhaps have not been as great as it is and just maybe, we wouldn't be here, unable to support those in need as Covid-19 wreaks havoc on livelihoods. 

SOEs in a shambles

Our state-owned entities would not be in a 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 which could be a great instrument to give people a voice as they interact with politicians and even journalists directly. But in parts, it has become a cesspool of insults, threats and misogyny. Women journalists are being sexualised and it is being used as a weapon to silence journalists, with chilling effects on younger journalists especially.

While some of the culprits are bots, we have also 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 to it, savoured those attacks.  

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

Creating a climate of fear and censorship

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 to curb the spread of the pandemic saw already reduced advertising revenue nearly disappear almost immediately.   

Those media houses, which were already on the brink of collapse, couldn't survive and were forced to shut down. Many others remain open but have had to retrench staff to keep themselves financially viable, or journalists have had to continue working with salary cuts. 

An investigation by the South African National Editors' Forum at the beginning of the Covid-19 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 their livelihoods and will join millions in unemployment queues, but the biggest impact is on our democracy. It means our quest for multiplicity of voices and diversity of coverage has really suffered a major blow.  

Community publications are able to shine a light in the rural parts of our country which are 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 the mainstream media in English.   

The absence of those community publications will be felt even more now as we head to the local government elections. This is the coalface of government, where the absence of delivery of services has been felt most. A shift to smaller newsrooms, even at mainstream publications, means that some stories will just not see light of day and investigative journalism will shrink.  

A move towards online news

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

Access remains a major challenge for the majority. The cost of data is a barriers and subscription walls are 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 and we should not feel helpless.  

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

READ | Opinion: Journalism: The best vaccine against disinformation

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 a public service. 

And it starts with everyone standing up in defence of journalists. It cannot be left to organisations like Sanef or Media Monitoring Africa and other lobby groups 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 who 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 enabling their participation in their democracy.  

New funding models

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, that governments support media houses to protect their sustainability and importantly, that support has not diluted their independence. 

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

We are also hoping that others, like telecoms, 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 believe we can't hold others accountable and not do so ourselves.  

It is 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 we have with those we serve.  

Ethics inquiry

We have concluded the ethics inquiry, led by Judge Kathleen Satchwell and veteran journalists Rich Mkhondo and Nikiwe Bikitsha.  

It has provided us with 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 later this month.  

We have already held a series of webinars, looking at the 69 recommendations in the Satchwell report and debated them to help inform our plan.  

READ | Opinion: When media ownership intertwines with news gathering, politics and profits

Some of the recommendations are beyond Sanef's mandate but demand that various sectors of society 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 group editor in chief at EWN and is Sanef's secretary-general.

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