Clinical psychologist and anti-apartheid activist Dr Saths Cooper says the media has become divided and tended to take sides. File picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency/ANA
Clinical psychologist and anti-apartheid activist Dr Saths Cooper says the media has become divided and tended to take sides. File picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency/ANA

Press Freedom Day: The threat then was Stratcom, now it’s allegiance to parties and people, says activist

By Siviwe Feketha Time of article published Oct 19, 2020

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Johannesburg - Media credibility has come under the spotlight as SA commemorates Press Freedom Day also known as Black Wednesday.

Various organisations held webinars as they reflected on the state of media freedom, diversity and credibility in the country in commemoration of its erstwhile struggles to pursue the truth during the apartheid era amid consistent repression on the press.

Black Wednesday is commemorated every year to mark the banning of The World and The Weekend World newspapers in October 1977 by the apartheid regime along with other 19 anti-apartheid organisations.

The World editor and vocal critic of the minority regime Percy Qoboza was thrown in jail with other journalists during the closure of the newspaper’s offices in Soweto.

Speaking during the Qoboza annual colloquium organised by the University of SA, veteran journalist Mike Siluma hailed Qoboza and fellow journalism luminary Aggre Klaste as having been able to push for activist journalism, which was the combination of committing to both truthfulness and social change.

“This was a combination of good journalism, but which had a purpose. It was not journalism for its own sake. There was a very heightened consciousness of what was happening in the country,” Siluma said.

Siluma said Qoboza had played a key role in the setting up of the Soweto committee of ten in 1976 in the wake of the June 16 youth uprisings, which he said was established at The World offices.

“For me it was no coincidence that, come October 1977, The World and The Weekend World were banned along with the other resistance organisations. Today we remember Percy Qoboza and his contribution to journalism and to the country. We would like to see those of us who are working in the media space being heirs of this tradition of journalism and heritage,” he said.

Veteran journalist Dr Joe Thloloe said the media industry was currently plunged into a crisis because its traditional model was no longer working in terms of bringing in the revenue necessary to produce credible journalism.

“The old model of the media has been shuttered. The old model was quite simple. You got as big an audience as possible and sold these figures to the advertisers. The advertisers and the audience paid for the creation of news, the packaging and the investigations that happen. That is the model that has been shuttered and that is which we are in crisis, because we have not devised a new model,” Thloloe said.

He said advertisers had now fled to big social media and online operators as they were able target their audiences more sharply. Thloloe added that ways of making online presence commercially viable had to be devised to attract and keep audience.

“The audiences that used to pay some of the cost that we carry have also deserted us,” he said.

SA Press Ombudsman Pippa Green pointed out that while the rise of social media and its spontaneity had been credited as a contributor to the decline of print media, proper journalism had to remain about accountability, verification and respect for truth to separate it from fake news.

“The problem with social media is that the obligation to the truth and the discipline of verification frequently comes second to clickbait content and outright propaganda,” she said.

She called on journalists to exercise their freedom of expression in the democratic dispensation while committing to truthful reporting.

“As much as we value freedom of expression, credible news outlets also have to be accountable for what they report,” she said.

Speaking in a separate webinar titled Healing wounds, reflections on Black Wednesday organised by Independent Media, clinical psychologist and anti-apartheid activist Dr Saths Cooper said the media had become divided and tended to take sides.

“The media has been, and is, deeply ideological. It informs and represents, usually, the ruling ethos. In the same way that we knew that during the apartheid era newsrooms were not safe places because in those newsrooms were Security Branch and later Stratcom persons who kept close watch on fellow colleagues as part of retention of the apartheid status quo, now we find blind and uncritical allegiance to parties and factions amongst those parties and often to individuals,” Cooper said.

This week Independent Media will host two more webinars to commemorate Press Freedom Day.

Webinar 2: Media diversity - Are the demographics of the country reflected? Register here: https://event.webinarjam.com/register/128/xq2m3i0q

Webinar 3: Who governs the Fourth Estate - a focus on ethics and credibility Register here: https://event.webinarjam.com/register/129/lpm1ybn5

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