Media a ‘voice for the voiceless’
Press freedom in South Africa is guaranteed. But it’s “fragile”, that’s why Reporters Without Borders ranked South Africa 31 out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
The organisation observed in its report: “South Africa’s 1996 constitution protects press freedom. The state security agency spies on some journalists and taps their phones. Others are harassed and subjected to intimidation campaigns if they try to cover certain subjects involving the ruling ANC, government finances, the redistribution of land to the black population or corruption.
“The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party was given a High Court warning in 2019 because of its invective and hate speech against journalists. It is not unusual for journalists, especially women, to be mocked, insulted and even threatened on social media, sometimes by politicians or their supporters.”
Our painful history requires us to reflect on the struggles we have overcome to chart a way forward. We cannot do this without remembering how the apartheid government introduced laws that enabled the police to arrest, detain and or ban whomever they saw as a threat to the regime.
In an attempt to conceal the atrocities they committed against black people, they banned a number of publications and went after certain journalists on what became known as Black Wednesday (October 19, 1977), the same year they murdered Black Consciousness Movement leader, Steve Bantu Biko.
This is the history we must remember before we side with politicians over our peers and colleagues.
We have come a long way. We can most certainly be proud of the role our media played in exposing crimes against humanity by the apartheid regime. Today, it is the media that has uncovered grand-scale corruption relating to the procurement of Covid-19 personal protective equipment under a democratically elected government.
What is disheartening and hard to believe is that some of the issues confronting journalists 43 years ago, still persist today: just recently we heard politicians justifying the harassment of a female journalist by a party supporter despite the incident being caught on camera.
Parts of the media, in particular Independent Media, remain under continuing attacks from politicians, with the help of some so-called senior journalists. The government posed a threat to media freedom then. Today the struggle has shifted - commercial interests determine who becomes a target.
I say this with a heavy heart, but we have become our own worst enemy. Some voices are louder than others and very often we risk losing the gains we have made over the past 26 years as a result.
I wonder what those arrested and tortured would say when journalists defend Cabinet ministers. Surely this goes against everything they fought for?
We may take for granted the media freedom we enjoy today, but it came at a great cost. That the country’s media freedom is deemed fragile is not a good sign for a maturing democracy.
What has been promising, however, is the great appetite that remains in some of us to still be the voice of the voiceless. The day we lose sight of our role of informing and educating our citizens is the day we not only betray those who were prepared to die for us to be able to report without fear of favour, but the generations of journalists who will come after us and one day carry the responsibility too of being servants of our communities.
As we marked Media Freedom Day, we should not forget that a united, though diverse, media industry can only strengthen our democracy. That is the bottom line.
* Mzantsi is editor of the Cape Times