Songezo Zibi | Journalists, they are Mr Magashule and Mr Malema, not SG or CIC

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In a speech at the Sanef Ethics and Credibility Conference on Saturday, Songezo Zibi said the work of journalists is not different to that of judges. It is sacred.

I want to preface my comments by offering my understanding of the role of journalism in a democracy and in an open society.

I am sure most of you can recite the definition of democracy from school – a government of the people, by the people, for the people. While that is trite, I choose to describe it as a system of self-rule that relies heavily on many among the people accepting certain sacred duties that are essential for its preservation.

Journalism is an indispensable pillar of democracy because it provides a channel for the elected representatives of the people and other public officials to communicate truthfully with the public so that the people always know what is being done in their name. On the flip side, it provides a platform for ordinary people to share views with one another, and to lay bare for all, including the people they have elected, to see what their needs are.

Journalism plays another role, and that is to deliberately and doggedly shine a light on the dark corners where truth that is in the public interest, may lay hidden. Again, this is so the people can develop informed opinions about those who govern them or hold very powerful positions so that they may use their own democratic power to hold them to account.

Since journalists are not elected, their credibility and power are drawn from their assumed integrity – that they will always present an accurate, complete version of events and the facts. The public often takes what journalists write or say at face value because they trust them to be professional and ethical.

This is an extremely powerful position for unelected tradesmen and women to occupy in a society. They can influence political events and the course of history whether what they write is accurate or not. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for a violent protest to occur in which scores of people end up dead based on inaccurate reporting.

As a result of this power, it is important for journalists and editors to remain humble and committed to truth out of respect for the public and its welfare. More than that, it is on the understanding that all of us have a duty to sustain the credibility of our system of self-government – an open democracy in which the people have the ultimate power.

Journalists do not always remember this sacred duty. Some can be careless, arrogant and untruthful. When their mistakes are pointed out, they can double down and, as the saying goes "stand by their story". This is not a good thing, and although not pervasive, we still see it too often for comfort.

Drivers of damage to journalism

Let me propose for consideration some of the reasons for the damage caused to journalism in the recent past.

The first is unconscious arrogance. I want to take members back to the time when the ANC attempted to pass the Protection of State Information Bill, aspects of which were decidedly anti-democratic. Correctly, this body raised heckles and lobbied for those aspects to be removed on the basis that this would affect the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press.

Sure, this is true, but it misses a bigger point. The ultimate battle was not just about the right of journalists to publish the truth, but about the right of the public to know what was being done in its name with its powers and resources. It was then about how that attempt to block the public from knowing would affect those who seek transparency on behalf of the public, such as journalists and whistle blowers.

This humble formulation is important because it places the democracy at the centre of the problem and more clearly defines the purpose of journalism. Journalists do not do the work they do for their own edification but in service of the people and open democracy.

The other formulation alienates journalists and journalism from the rest of society in that many ordinary people likely saw this as a battle between politicians and journalists. This suited the politicians just fine.

The second cause of damage to journalism is the unwarranted tolerance of rogue journalists (and media owners) who routinely do not apply the appropriate standards of conduct and commitment to truth that is expected. These are journalists and editors who are comfortable with providing insufficient or inaccurate context, make material omissions or deliberately fail to give respondents sufficient time to respond.

It still happens that media relations professionals get emailed questions on a Saturday to respond within a few hours on a complex matter that requires access to records that are likely in the office and in the hands of several people in an organisation. In some instances, and I am speaking from first-hand experience, some journalists do not even send a text message alerting you to the email.

I cannot think of any other reason why this would happen except ensuring that the subject of the story has insufficient time to respond meaningfully, or has no time to respond at all.

"Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story” is a well-known adage that is perhaps only acceptable in fireside, embellished tales than in newsrooms that take their democratic duty seriously.

Thirdly, journalists also have inherent biases to which they should have more resistance than ordinary people, but they don't really commit to this self-discipline, to their eternal detriment. For instance, the National Treasury is less likely to be closely scrutinised and questioned than any other government agency.

Sure, it has built its own strong reputation over the years but the failure to scrutinise short-changes the public and fails journalism's purpose. The same is true for private corporations. They may hate it but they benefit as much from proper scrutiny as do public institutions. Continuously passing this test means higher levels of trust, which cannot be a bad thing.

Of course, there are other little missteps and habits that may seem benign but are nonetheless insidiously harmful – including the terms of endearment journalists share with those in power.

The secretary-general or treasurer-general of the ANC are not your SG or TG, but Mr Mantashe, Magashule or Mkhize to you. Julius Malema is not your CIC either, he is Mr Malema. If you keep doing this, two negative things happen immediately.

The first is that you fail the test of consistency. The Democratic Alliance does not have a president or any of these other titles, but a Leader with a capital letter L. Do I hear anyone referring to Leader Steenhuisen or Leader Maimane? Or maybe just "Leader"? No.

So what happens? You come across as if you are much closer and therefore more likely to be accommodating of the ANC and EFF even if this is not the case.

The second is that you construct an unhelpful impression that your relationship with the said politician can be something it is not supposed to be, and they get upset with you when you unexpectedly criticise them as if protecting their egos is your job.

You are all grown up, so I am not going to turn each of these observations into a lecture on how to be vigilant and protect the role of the news media in our democracy. What I will ask you to do, though, is to reflect deeply on the big and small issues.

On the big issues, you really ought to encourage further reflection on the role of the news media in our democracy, and how that role is about the protection and advancement of an open democratic culture itself. The work of journalists is not different to that of judges. It is sacred.

On the "small" issues, uncompromising commitment to standards is everything. In the recent past, some journalists have done egregious things that caused good citizens a great deal of suffering. As if they have no conscience whatsoever, these colleagues of yours have steadfastly refused to apologise and make amends, preferring to take a deflective, amoral position that is no different to the politicians they claim to hold accountable.

Such hard-heartedness does nothing to sustain the role and power of journalism in society. The public notice and project all of that on all journalists, most of whom just want to do their jobs properly.

Other forces

Having said that, it will be naïve of me to speak as if the problem is created entirely by journalists. Owners have and continue to play their part, too. Let me be blunt, the news media business is not where you invest in order to get rich quickly. If that is the intention, then you get Fox News, which does not qualify as a proper news channel.

Instead, it is a verifiable threat to democracy worldwide. In South Africa, we have our own instances of owners using the platforms they own to drive a nefarious, damaging agenda. It used to be unthinkable but these days it is not unusual to see a whole media group peddle dangerous xenophobic content based on lies and deliberate mischaracterisations. I cannot think of any reason why this would be done if not to create social instability and political anarchy.

In such instances, one cannot help but feel sorry for young reporters who are taught a perverse form of journalism that cannot be good for society in the longer term. The ultimate response and solution to this remains great journalism that illuminates facts and insights that the public find useful in their own political decision-making.

The dark forces

I also hope that there will be space in the coming months to have a meaningful discourse about the dark forces that are out to undermine democracy itself. These forces engage in two lines of attack.

The first is sophisticated and concerted disinformation that seeks to undermine democratic institutions. These range from the most outrageous lies that under normal circumstances would be laughable, to the light touch magicians that use the cover of their professions to do the same.

The objective of these purveyors of misinformation is to have the public so confused that it cannot separate truth from fiction, and cannot trust anyone other than those who confirm their biases. Crucially, they want the public to believe that critical democratic institutions are inherently anti-democratic, thereby delegitimising them in the eyes of the people so that they can no longer perform their functions.

It is acceptable to criticise journalists or the content of stories but not the egregious and dangerous cyber and physical bullying, especially of female journalists by hordes of sexist political followers who use language laced with threats of violence. That is fascist behaviour.

It is okay to criticise judgments, but it is not okay to seek to delegitimise the entire judiciary for spurious reasons. Please make no mistake, anyone who does this, no matter how charming they otherwise may be, is a dangerous enemy of democracy. Assuming that they are sufficiently astute to understand what neutered institutions and journalists who cannot do their work mean, consistency demands that they be regarded with the contempt they deserve.

People who engage in this kind of thing are anti-democratic. Of course, they will claim that freely expressing themselves is their democratic right. Our response should be: of course, we are so happy that you are showing your true colours. Now we can make an informed judgment about the extent of your hypocrisy and anti-democratic tendencies.

If the news media is to play this role, credibility is everything. That credibility must be continuously earned because of the consistently ethical application of the craft itself.

I know that it is hard being a journalist. The pay is poor, resources scarce and the work is dangerous. However, it is also a calling and a sacred duty. Let us continue to respect it and treat it with the reverence it deserves, for to do so, is to honour the blood and tears of those who fought for this system of self-government we ought to protect with all we have.

I thank you.

- Songezo Zibi is an author and former editor of Business Day.

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