‘Women do not have freedom of movement’
HER love of politics, South Africa and the principles of justice and accountability drew award-winning journalist Verashni Pillay to her calling - against all odds.
“Coming from a working-class South African Indian community, there was huge pressure for me to pursue a more lucrative career.
“Saying no and choosing journalism involved a huge amount of nerve, which I can assure you faltered a few times while I trained for an industry everyone said was doomed,” said Pillay.
“What drew me to this calling was a simple equation. After high school, I took a year out to decide what I wanted to do with my life. This was another shock to my family and community.
“I realised that I loved politics, and I cared deeply about my country and the principles of justice and accountability. I had just read the book Animal Farm and was ‘shook’ as the kids say. I also loved writing. It took me a year, but one day it hit me that all those, together, added up to journalism.”
* Journalism in SA:
With the South African morale generally weighed down by a weak economy, instability in political circles and with fake news and politicking in journalism casting a shadow on what was once an industry relied upon as the foundation for truth and justice, we asked Pillay if she believed there was a space for journalism in South Africa’s future.
“Absolutely! Not just in South Africa’s future but in every country. There is a relationship between a country’s freedom of the press and other freedoms.
“The main importance of journalism today is the same as it has always been - to hold the powerful to account and to uncover wrong-doing.
“However, in today’s age of a rise of misinformation and the lightning-fast speed that lies or half-truths can spread on social media, credible, trained and committed journalists are more important than ever.”
* Playing in the digital space:
Known for making strides in the digital arena of journalism - Pillay has won two digital categories at traditional journalism awards (CNN African Journalist of the Year, Digital Journalism Category, in 2012; and the Standard Bank Sikuvile Award for Multi-platform Journalism, in 2013) - we quizzed Pillay on her thoughts on the big “digital versus print” and “print is dead” debate.
“The debate is largely won. I can’t bear to look at the quarterly print circulation figures in the country any longer.
“We all knew it would come to this. Traditional newsrooms that have historically produced the most excellent journalists need to embrace a workable digital strategy - fast - or there is no future for them.
“Of course, print will always have a space - beautiful publications that one can touch and feel - but it won’t be our main news source.
“Traditional print titles must accept that, and move quickly to position themselves accordingly.”
* Community is the key:
Arguably, a large amount of journalism is also being increasingly driven by “citizen journalism” - where often mainstream newsrooms hear the story first from community WhatsApp groups or Facebook pages.
Domestic violence and rape have become so “normal” today, that it hardly grabs public attention outside the likes of Women’s Month or the campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Children Abuse.
We asked Pillay what her thoughts were about citizens becoming more involved in journalism and how it could be used to highlight women’s issues.
“I can’t agree more. I am so passionate about the woefully under-examined issue of community media or citizen journalism for precisely this reason.”
However, she said it was important that this kind of community media was safeguarded against abuse, inaccuracies and the likes of fake news.
“Citizen journalists must be welcomed into the fold and partner with trained journalists.
“All too often the industry is caught up in an elitist ‘us versus them’ mentality to anyone they deem not a journalist - including talk show broadcasters, bloggers, etc.
“This is self-defeating. We must make the circle bigger to better serve our audience - and to survive.”
* What South African women need:
In the spirit of Women’s Month, we asked Pillay what she thought was the one area that South Africa needed to prioritise for women.
“We seem to just accept the fact that women do not have freedom of movement in this country.
“The inability to walk down the street alone, for many of us, translates into so much other self-censoring. We make ourselves small, limit our dreams and ambitions in the same way that our very physical freedom is so limited because of the risk of violence we face, if we are alone and vulnerable.
“Being vulnerable is the source of our biggest strength but, in South Africa, the very act of vulnerability translates into a lack of safety and exposing oneself to extreme danger.
“This is true of physical vulnerability - wearing revealing clothing, walking around alone - and psychological vulnerability in an age of cyber-bullying and digital shaming.
“The cost of being ridiculed for being real is just too high.
“It’s costing us in terms of our personal growth as individuals and society.”