On the 23rd of March 2020, as the president announced the national lockdown, some of us watched local media take its final breath, says the writer. File picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS
On the 23rd of March 2020, as the president announced the national lockdown, some of us watched local media take its final breath, says the writer. File picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS

23 March 2020: the day SA journalism died

By Unathi Kondile Time of article published May 24, 2020

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It is with a profound sense of sadness that I write to inform you that South Africa’s journalism, from print to broadcast, died on the evening of 23 March 2020.

It came as no surprise. Long before this fateful day the signs were there. Death loomed large. The rise of desktop journalists harvesting news from Twitter, racially biased news reports, Daily Maverick attacking Independent Newspapers daily, TV reporters banished for wearing doeks and tweeting EFF conferences, political party heads managing newsrooms and fear-based management styles were just a few of the comorbidities.

The symptoms were there; from shortness of Covid-19 in depth analysis to government making it clear that all Covid-19 cases would be confirmed by a single source, the Department of Health. No room to breath. Journalists accepted this. No questioning of saliva testing methods or prevalence of comorbidities. You could die from food poisoning but because you had a trace of Covid-19 in you, then it was declared a Covid-19 death. No journalists visiting family or digging for a personal narrative around said death. Who poisoned the person? No such luck.

Our dearly departed journalism even went as far as calling daily government Covid-19 updates “BREAKING NEWS!” How is anything breaking in cases of continuity?

On the 23rd of March 2020, as the president announced the national lockdown, some of us watched local media take its final breath.

From that day onwards anyone seeking credible and diverse news on Covid-19 had to switch to international news channels. Here at home we are subjected to parrot journalism of “one death today”, “five infections there”, "ten recoveries", “we must flatten the curve”, “mostly elderly affected”, “comorbidities” jargon with little to no accompanying thinking. 

Suddenly journalists became hewers of statistics and drawers of Dr Zweli Mkhize praise.

It became boring and monotonous to follow. No voices of dissent. No questioning of figures. No clear messaging around actual virus precautions; one minute wearing masks was not necessary, the next minute it was. One minute the virus affects the elderly, the next minute children had it too.

What exactly were journalists up to all this time?

Washing hands, constantly fiddling with their branded masks, demonstrating social distancing interview techniques through multiple Vox pops, Daily Maverick continued to bash Independent Newspapers owners, eNCA suspended news anchors, News24 and Eyewitness News became the voices of John Steenhuisen and his royal “we” who want the economy open, the Pieter Louis-Myburghs, Adriaan Bassons, Pauli Van Wyks, Karyn Maughans became subjects of cyber attacks. 

Karyn went as far as tweeting: “More and more, journalists are not being criticised for specific factual, analytical problems with our reporting.” But Karyn, how do you criticise someone for something they have not done? That’s the nature of stenography, people go straight to your source because you had little to do with the actual content beyond transcribing it.

She continues with “We get attacked - with death threats, insults and blatant lies - solely because we report on specific stories. It’s goal-directed harassment. Aimed at silencing us.” Refer again to stenography.

In the midst of a pandemic one wonders why these journalists became subjects of such abuse. Is it because they had nothing to report on the pandemic itself and regressed to their daily Zuma-Myeni-Mkhwebane-… stories?

How is it that no breaking alternative Covid-19 stories are coming out?

Why has the media conceded to being sitting ducks that wait for government announcements before making any virus pronouncements?

This dearth of Covid-19 breaking news has paved the way for disinformation and fake news. 

While other countries debate hydroxychloroquine, artemisia annua and have regular Q&As with their leaders we sit here watching racial newsroom wars looming. Those who criticise government and want lockdown to end are predominantly white and are labelled racist watchdogs. Those who defend government and fear for lives of majority are mostly black and are labelled lackey lapdogs. 

It is such a pity that race rears its ugly head in journalism during these difficult times.

How about bringing us new news on Covid-19 in South Africa? Where is the Bhekisisa Health Journalism centre? Why isn’t it Bhekisisa-ing Covid-19? Mia Malan, its editor, only scratched the surface with questions on SA’s high-level Covid-19 committee. Didn’t go anywhere but just to say that scientists tend to fight for titles and prestige. Great example being Dr Glenda Gray who is at loggerheads with Mkhize.

Why must I turn to health reporters like Sarah Zhang, from The Atlantic abroad, to understand how Covid-19 affects children and adults differently?

When our Minister of Basic Education announces schools reopening why are our journalists not telling us how children’s developing immune systems are better equipped to take on the virus? How? Does holing children up at home not further weaken their developing immune systems?

Why must a "fellow South African", Zama Ndlovu, pay $29 to read The Washington Post online to understand what is happening right here in the Western Cape? 

Only international journalists can tell us that the closure of spaza shops and concentration of supermarkets was a bad move? That social distancing is impossible in informal settlements? 

We have no journalists in this country who can write such? Where are they?

If any exist, we want the following from them:

1. Together with his top three advisors our president must host briefing and Q&A sessions daily or every two days.

2. StatsSA, working with hospitals and doctors, must also provide other causes of death in this country. Daily.

3. Is there a rise in malnutrition cases in the country? What are South Africa's malnutrition stats? Before and during this lockdown?

4. The rise in HIV missed clinic and hospital appointments is said to be at a maximum of 60%, are people now defaulting on HIV treatment because of Covid-19? What with key health centres closing down with every reported staff Covid-19 contraction.

5. There are currently 50 scientists advising government? Who are they and what are their independent contributions to the national Covid-19 dialogue?

6. Why are some of these scientists claiming that government’s phased exit from the lockdown is "nonsensical and unscientific"?

7. Numerous reports have outlined job losses and rising unemployment. Can we get some figures? How many businesses have closed thus far? What are the current unemployment figures?

8.  Probe banks that are busy dishing out 3-month Covid-19 relief loans to people who have lost jobs and income. What happens after three months and person still has no job and still has to raise income from scratch? Will houses and cars be repossessed? Mass blacklisting? What measures are being put in place to buffer the escalating debt during this period?

And lastly can our journalists get off Twitter, put on some protective gear and go get South Africans some clarity on this Covid-19? Go international with your coverage even. Why must South Africans switch to CNN and read Washington Post to see what is going on in the world and in their backyards?

* Unathi Kondile is a vernacular newspaper editor, researcher and communications advisor.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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