In an African, and ultimately global, context, the death of Suna Venter is a significant spike in temperature on a heat map of transgressions against the media.
In a way, fake news has served its purpose. To change a narrative, to erode trust and disrupt or maintain a status quo, depending on which side of the fence you find yourself. Some will argue that fake news and the propaganda brigade have already won, and that such untruths always existed in tabloids operating on the smuttier side of life. We forget that fake news allowed George W Bush to invade Iraq, and that WMD (weapons of mass destruction) was more of an invention than WMC (white monopoly capital) is right now. The R68 000-a-day chasm between executives and workforce force us to acknowledge our current failings. But now, in 2017, faux news has become the sharp end of a very phallic system of oppression and repression.
In an African, and ultimately global, context, the death of Suna Venter is a significant spike in temperature on a heat map of transgressions against the media. The assailants are largely faceless and yet ubiquitous. They move in the dark and yet spawn identities on social media. Welcome to the age of bots and rent-a-crowds; of hackers and henchmen.
From the tiny fingertips of Donald Trump to the blunt objects aimed at the bodies of Venter and thousands of journalists like her around the world, the slow strangulation of the media has only intensified in the slipstream of fake news, cyberattacks and state-condoned surveillance. Are we surprised that a government that can brutalise its citizens in broad daylight and in full view of cameras in Marikana can then turn around and shoot the messenger without blinking an eye?
I didn’t know Venter personally, but her works speaks for itself. The trauma of her ordeal is too ghastly for any journalist to contemplate. To our knowledge there is no evidence directly linking her death to foul play, but only a fool would try to exclude the intimidation, kidnapping and attempted murder she endured as casual factors. Venter was systematically broken by forces at war with the organs of a democracy. It was torture; the kind meted out to those who disobey or speak out against the corrupt.
In America the system is only slightly more subtle. On Thursday Donald Trump, a sitting president of the highest office in the land, saw fit to attack TV news presenter Mika Brzezinski, tweeting that she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift” and begged to spend the New Year’s holiday with him.
I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came.
...to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!
The tirade was not of the political kind. It was as misogynistic and crass as we have come to expect from Trump. He was bullying her in full view of the entire world on social media, and thankfully he was called out for it. It wasn’t the first time or the last time Trump will wage war on journalism.
Just days earlier the White House began holding banning cameras from certain press briefings, a move that infringes on press freedom in the US.
Without being overly dramatic (and it’s difficult not to be in this current climate), it’s fair to say the Fourth Estate in Africa and the world is at war with enemies on the outside and within. The combative language is difficult to avoid given the present climate.
Take the case of Keiso Mohloboli, a promising young journalist and African Independent correspondent who remains on the run from the Lesotho government – the former government, that is. New leadership in her country recently doesn’t make her feel safe enough to return. She remains in exile, fearing for her life after her editor was shot four times last year. Their crime? Reporting on an alleged golden shake from the then Lesotho prime minister and his deputy to the discredited head of the country’s defence force. Africa is littered with journalists in hiding and fearing for their lives. Many of them survive day to day by writing for foreign publications like African Independent, The Guardian, BBC and the Mail & Guardian - often under pseudonyms.
Getachew Shiferaw, editor of the news website Negere Ethiopia, was only recently set free after being convicted in the high court for inciting subversion.
Further afield, broadcaster Al Jazeera has become a pawn in the current Gulf crisis. Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom has been jailed for 10 years on charges of spreading propaganda. This after a one-day trial. We still have not accounted for South African journalist Shiraz Mohamed who was kidnapped in January this year, and our government seems uninterested at the most.
Given all of this, a bullet and fatal health conditions are not even the thing journalists should be fearing the most. What of the enemy within?
The rampant marginalisation of skilled and experienced journalists in favour of a younger, cheaper workforce has jeopardised the profession and possibly damaged it forever. The balance of power in many media houses has shifted under stress. The current economics of news can no longer hold in the wake of financial disruption from digital technology, unsympathetic media owners and the curtailing of government advertising. Even the flush New York Times has halved its complement of copy editors, choosing quantity of reporting over quality. In response, the copy editors wrote: “We have begun the humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times. We take some solace in the fact that we have been assured repeatedly that copy editors are highly respected here.
“If that is true, we have a simple request. Cutting us down to 50 to 55 editors from more than 100, and expecting the same level of quality in the report, is dumbfoundingly unrealistic. Work with us on a new number.”
Even in anger, the words of disgruntled journalists are elegant and thoughtful, yet they cut deep and with purpose. Truth to power and all that.
Hatred and corruption exploit gaps created by ignorance, inexperience and lack of fortitude in newsrooms. The struggle of young, black journalists within these newsrooms should is a topic for a separate discussion.
It would be a shame to lose talent and courage in the media at this precarious juncture in our history. No, it would be tragic. Just as it is tragic to lose someone as young and courageous as Suna Venter and many more like her.
In covering the erosion of civil and human rights on the front lines, journalists expect to be caught in the crosshairs, they understand those particular risks in the field. But when governments and parastatals are the sponsors of abuse and turn their sights on the journalists themselves, we all lose a little hope. When a journalist dies - not that our lives have more value – but we lose one more person who seeks truth over propaganda. We lose one more person who has sought to shine a light on injustice, even at the cost of their life.
* @AdrianEphraim is the editor of @africanindy His views are personal.