Today is World Press Freedom Day

This year’s United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) theme is “Journalism under Digital Siege”.

It underlines the many new digital threats journalists face.

They include unprecedented digitally driven state surveillance and censorship in China, Russia and an increasing number of copycat authoritarian regimes — combined with direct threats that have shut down independent journalism.

Threats also include the weaponisation of social media for propaganda, thinly disguised hate speech, the formation of radicalised bubbles of political fanaticism and the deployment of digital lynch-mobs, especially against women.

They also encompass the shift towards the control of our entire mass communication ecosystem by a handful of plutocrats who answer to no-one and whose grasp of the fundamental interactions of speech, politics and accountability are tenuous and self-serving at best.

As amaBhungane experienced last week in response to our analysis of the origins and impact of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement, social media, with its anonymized swarms, enables and amplifies a discourse of disparagement and groupthink.

This message:

Sent to our tipoff queue was relatively mild, but it was pretty representative of the tenor of the majority of responses to our exposure of what appears to have been a deliberate digital campaign to mainstream anti-foreigner sentiment.

While these populist narratives are anchored in real grievances (like earlier White Monopoly Capital themes employed by the Guptas and their acolytes) they are also dangerous manipulations deployed by elites to gain and hold power.

As our colleagues at the Global Investigative Journalism Network have noted, the state of global democracy is at its lowest point in decades. They note: “Around the world, free and fair elections face growing threats from disinformation campaigns, foreign interference, voter suppression, campaign corruption, violence, and more.”

This makes the task of putting real journalism — trusted, tested, transparent – at the centre of public and political discourse even more critical.

This is especially so as we face existential choices about clean energy and climate mitigation that are going to determine whether our children inherit a world of hope — or an earthly hell-scape that is going to make the current problems of migration look like a picnic.

At the same time there are some counterweights.

Domestically, the Zondo commission has now reaffirmed both the treasonous agency of former president Jacob Zuma at the centre of the State Capture project — as well as the the timeliness and accuracy of the South African media’s exposés and warnings, in which amaBhungane played a leading part.

As Chris Yellend, our pre-eminent public energy analyst tweeted, “For me, one of the things to come out from the 4th Zondo report on Eskom yesterday is just how accurate the media investigations and reporting have turned out to be.

“The Zondo Commission findings and recommentations in respect of Zuma, the Guptas, Myeni, Gigaba, Zwane, Brown, Ngubane, Tsotsi, Molefe, Singh, Koko, Maritz and more come as no surprise whatsoever. From the reporting, we have known the facts all along…

“The exceptional work by the mainstream media in South Africa, by Prof Thuli Madonsela who so dutifully performed her sacred role as Public Protector, and by Prof Anton Eberhard and his colleagues in his open report on those bleak years at Eskom, have been well and truly vindicated.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude for their work, and our support against the abuse and insults they have suffered as a result.”

But we have not rested on our laurels.

In fact, it’s hard to recall when we last really rested at all.

The threats posed by a dysfunctional politics, a failing state, a crippled infrastructure and a collapsing environment loom as challenges we all — journalists and citizens alike — must stand up and face.

In that context, it was humbling and heartening for two amaBhungane stars, Dewald van Rensburg and Susan Comrie to be joint winners, together with Daily Maverick’s Pieter-Louis Myburgh, of the 2021 Taco Kuiper award for investigative journalism.

As Susan wrote, the Taco Kuiper Awards are the most prestigious awards dedicated to recognising and celebrating the craft of investigative journalism.

She explains, “When I saw the list of the finalists my heart sank — there were so many good investigations on the shortlist that could easily have walked away with the prize. To be picked as one of the winners, alongside Dewald van Rensburg and Pieter Louis Myburgh, was humbling.

“It’s particularly satisfying that this story – the UPL Chemical Disaster — was picked.

“After winning the award, I was going through the latest reports on UPL (not much of a way to celebrate, I know!) and I came across a government newsletter on the UPL disaster and found this quote from a senior government official: “There has never been an incident of this magnitude in the history of South Africa.” — Grant Walters, Senior Green Scorpions Enforcement Director.

“We didn’t do this alone: a huge network of people from civil society, including other journalists like Tony Carnie from Daily Maverick, stepped in to expose the UPL Chemical Disaster and to hold the government to account. To know that we played a small part in opening the government’s eyes is very gratifying.”

It is also gratifying that just this past week the public interest organisation OUTA filed a legal challenge to overturn the National Electricity Regulator of SA’s decision to grant generation licences to Turkish consortium Karpowership.

Based in part on amaBhungane’s reporting, OUTA argues that NERSA “failed to act in the interests of South Africa, failed to provide adequate reasons and failed to consider that the Karpowership 20-year “emergency” contracts will not resolve loadshedding but will instead tie South Africa to an expensive long-term contract”.

The fight for a livable country and a livable planet are indivisible battles.

There is no tap-out.

Tap in here https://amabhungane.org/support/ and join us.

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