I joined the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism in April last year in the role of advocacy coordinator.
I knew at the time that I would be part of continuing amaBhungane’s decade of fighting for media freedom – through lobbying, engaging in legislative processes, joining public campaigns, and litigating. All of this with the aim of enhancing access to the information that is the lifeblood of journalism, and to push back against measures that inhibit journalists’ ability to perform their roles.
Over a year later, World Press Freedom Day, commemorated on 3 May, offers an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned are the major issues affecting journalists today, some well-known, and others more obscure but equally pernicious.
It also serves as a reminder that press freedom is not only the concern of the media, but of everyone, due to the important role of journalism in sustaining democracy.
My first lesson was this: Press freedom is not a box to be ticked. Rather, it is an ongoing activity that evolves alongside shifts in politics, the economy, technology and society. Pursuing media freedom requires constant vigilance to detect new challenges to journalistic freedom.
A global concern
This year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day marks an important milestone, being 30 years since the UNESCO conference from which the Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press was born.
Three decades on, and it is clear that the battle to realise the principles set out in the Windhoek Declaration is not close to being won.
All over the world familiar tactics are in play, used by would-be authoritarians, politicians, corporations, criminal groupings, and individuals alike: they discredit and devalue the work of journalists, insult them, accuse them of crimes, drag them to court, call on their supporters to harass them.
If that doesn’t silence journalists, violence sometimes will.
The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 cannot easily be forgotten, but the killing of journalists continues – two more, David Beriain and Roberto Fraile, lost their lives in Burkina Faso just last week.
Violence is the extreme manifestation of journalist suppression, but other means such as online harassment or vexatious litigation can also cause lasting harm.
We have seen it time and time again: from the sustained harassment of Fillipino journalist Maria Ressa following her criticism of President Duterte, to former President Trump’s consistent – and damaging – undermining of the press.
The barrage of attacks against the free press results in a chilling effect, which can ultimately enable crime and other acts of wrongdoing to go undetected and unexposed. In the end, everyone loses.
The state of press freedom in South Africa
The absence of extreme acts against journalists should not induce a false sense of security. While we are placed in the “satisfactory” category in the 2021 ranking of media freedom by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – due in part to our constitutional protection of freedom of the media – it is cause for concern that we have slipped one place in the ranking since last year.
RSF has observed that “apartheid-era legislation and terrorism laws are used to limit coverage of government institutions when ‘national interest’ is supposedly at stake” and that journalists have been harassed and intimidated for covering controversial topics such as government finances, land redistribution, and corruption, particularly when the ruling party is involved.
They also noted that women journalists have been mocked, insulted and threatened on social media, “sometimes by politicians or their supporters”.
The lockdown period saw some journalists being intimidated by police when covering lockdown-related stories. This was particularly concerning as the media served as a window on the world for those confined to their homes.
My work at amaBhungane has given me a profound appreciation for the importance of access to information rights.
With the law on their side, journalists can pierce the veil of secrecy and bring wrongdoing to light. However, attempts have been made more than once to roll back access to information through subtle changes to laws and regulations, sometimes under the guise of national interests or privacy.
These must be tested against constitutional standards to ensure that access to information and press freedom is given due consideration.
Perhaps the greatest threat is the one least talked about outside media circles – the very survival of the media itself.
Reliant on advertising revenue that is increasingly been drawn away by “Big Tech” and social media, news companies are struggling to keep afloat. The South African National Editors’ Forum has raised the alarm about a rise in retrenchments in the industry.
The loss of revenue also has damaging knock-on effects, including the depletion and “juniorisation” of newsrooms and declining quality control.
Urgent interventions are needed to ensure that media remains independent, produces high-quality and credible journalism, and is able to sustain itself.
At the same time, the press can take 3 May as a day to engage in introspection about what can be done to improve standards.
Media platforms have been abused to push narratives that advance narrow interests at the expense of the public good. Recent history has shown that the press is not immune to undue influences. This could serve as a time to take stock, evaluate systems, and implement mechanisms to ensure that reporting remains accurate, fair and credible.
Press freedom is for everyone
The theme selected by UNESCO for 2021 is “Information as a Public Good”.
This sentiment is illustrated well in the South African context – without the many journalists who did the hard work of bringing state capture to light, we would not have seen momentous steps taken in the fight against corruption and state capture, such as the Zondo Commission and prosecutions that have followed.
This work continues across a wide front, from exposures such as PPE tender fraud, to other mismanagement of public funds and abuses of political and corporate power.
If I have learned anything over the past year, it is this: if journalists enjoy the fullest expression of their freedoms and are allowed to do their work, without impediment, fear or favour, everyone wins.