George Claassen | Journalism is 'main vaccine against disinformation' – Why independence of the media matters

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In celebration of World News day, George Claassen writes that journalists should always protect their independence as if they are in the last trenches of democracy. 

"Journalism, Covid-19's collateral victim," is how Reporters without Borders (RSF) summarised its #RSFIndex2021 Report on the worsening position of journalists to report the facts independently.

This independence of the media to report news unhindered from pressure and interest groups, also from politicians and public officials failing to fulfill their duty to act on behalf of the population, has been part and parcel of the woes of News24 and many other local media's journalists, harassed and threatened on a wide variety of topics, lately by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination cults. The pressures Covid-19 has brought on journalists to inform the public about scientific facts are not new. In all fields covered by dedicated journalists worldwide, there is always pressure from someone who wants to interfere with our duty to report the facts fearlessly, evidence-based, and not merely founded on wishful thinking.

ALSO READ: OPINION | Journalism: The 'best vaccine against disinformation'

News24 is no exception. Covid-19, KwaSizabantu, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the Eskom Files, My Only Story investigations into school children abused by teachers or religious leaders; all of these topics covered by News24 in recent months have led to immense pressure from various interested individuals and pressure groups to attack News24's editors and journalists, to hurl profanities of the worst kind, and to try and silence us through legal means, or with quite often spurious complaints at the Press Council. I have written various columns to illustrate why the spotlight journalists shine on the iniquities and abominations of society, is of paramount importance to protect democracy, of which these two are worth repeating to readers: 'OPINION | From Spotlight to KwaSizabantu - a watchdog protecting the vulnerable'; and: George Claassen | How a cult of ignorance endangers the fight against Covid-19

South African press code 

What does the South African Press Code say about the media's role in society? In its preamble, it emphasises that the "media exist to serve society. Their freedom provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society, and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the day, a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution."

It further states that the "media's work is guided at all times by the public interest, understood to describe information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens."

To do their work, journalists must be independent, one of the basic pillars of press and media codes in democracies. After years of censorship, harassment, intimidation, and incarceration of journalists during apartheid, section 16 of the Constitution brought freedom of expression, a vital guarantee to sustain and advance democracy.

The self-regulatory Press Code emphasises this independence of the media in section 2:

"The media shall:

2.1 not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting, and avoid conflicts of interest as well as practices that could lead readers to doubt the media's independence and professionalism;

2.2 not accept any benefit which may influence coverage;

2.3 indicate clearly when an outside organisation has contributed to the cost of newsgathering; and

2.4 keep editorial material clearly distinct from advertising and sponsored events." 

Difficult task of journalists  

Reporters Without Borders "defends the independence of journalists and media from political and corporate influence, conflicts of interests and every other kind of pressure. It makes specific legislative proposals with the aim of improving national laws affecting the media, and it seeks to reinforce international norms that protect journalistic freedom and independence vis-à-vis all political, corporate and religious centres of power and influence," according to its website.

In its 2021 Index of Media Independence, RSF emphasises how difficult the task of journalists has become.

"With reporters attacked and arrested, their incomes falling and media undermined by disinformation and draconian laws, the coronavirus pandemic has compounded the huge difficulties for journalism in sub-Saharan Africa, where 23 of the 48 countries (two more than in 2020) are now marked as red or black on the World Press Freedom map, meaning the situation is classified as bad or very bad.

ALSO READ: OPINION | Journalism is critical to our understanding of the world but is also under threat

RSF has specific concerns about journalists in Africa:

"The coronavirus crisis has made it evident that African journalists' role in nurturing democracies built on fact-based and pluralist public debate is still far from assured. Instead of allowing journalists to do their job of reporting the news, a role that is more essential than ever during such a crisis, authorities sought to control coverage of the pandemic and often facilitated or even directly contributed to hostility and mistrust towards those trying to provide objective, researched reporting?"

History of Apartheid  

Unfortunately, we in the media in South Africa are not exempted from being trampled on and smothered, this lack of oxygen to reveal the facts suppressing our independence like the virus of the pandemic. Before 1994, or at least until the early or mid-1980s, Nasionale Pers, publisher of Afrikaans newspapers and various magazine titles, was in the pockets of the National Party with ministers even sitting on its board. It, inter alia, led to the establishment of a strong anti-apartheid voice when a brave former Naspers journalist, Max du Preez, established Vrye Weekblad, just to be haunted by police and ministerial harassment and the eventual closing of his publication when an apartheid apparatchik took the legal route to silence it.   

Since 1994, Media24, publisher of News24, has however protected its independence vigorously. News24, established in 1998, has since its inception become South Africa's most trusted news source, as the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, has found.

Yet, the gross interference of some publishers and owners in the editorial independence of its journalists, or its driven agendas against facts and evidence-based science during Covid-19, have not dissipated after the end of apartheid. The owner of Independent Media, Dr Iqbal Survé, managing and manipulating the news presentation of its once highly regarded newspaper titles, and the laughable and deplorable interrelationship between the publisher of BizNews, Alec Hogg, and the most virulent spreader of doubts about vaccinations against Covid-19, PANDA, and its megaphonic actuary Nick Hudson – none of them subscribing to the South African Press Code – are prime examples.

With the local government elections on our doorstep, the heat on journalists has already been turned up immensely by political parties, candidates, and supporters of those parties to dance to their tune, no matter what the facts say about a party or a candidate. It is not something new as journalists through the ages can testify how pressure and interest groups have tried to influence and manipulate their reporting. The Trump era, Fox News, and the Covid-19 pandemic have enlarged these debilitating efforts.

The responsibility of journalists 

As journalists, we should always protect our independence as if we are in the last trenches of democracy. But it also applies to how we look at ourselves as a profession because that self-examination can only lead to protecting our hard-won independence to serve democracy.

It is worthwhile to take to heart the words of Piet Cillié, former editor of the Cape Town daily Die Burger, and then head of the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, when he said in 1979, "We in the press, when we so quickly want to quote Lord Acton about the potential of corruption embedded in power, must remember that it is not only authorities which have power: We also have power, power of propaganda, power over the thoughts of people, power to thwart and to disrupt. Our power is not immune against the corruption about what we are so vigilant when it applies to others. It is better that we also look at our own conceit and abuse of power, rather than calling others to account for it."

There is an Indian saying, "The truth is what the neighbour sees, not your mother." As journalists, we in the media quite often should be the neighbour, not the mother blinded by blood.

George Claassen is News24's Public Editor and a member of the board of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO).

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