The modern threat to media freedom


Demonstrators rally outside the offices of South Africa's public broadcaster on July 1, 2016 in Johannesburg to protest against alleged bias and self-censorship in news coverage ahead of key municipal elections.

Black Wednesday is a moment to mark the distance we have travelled in South Africa on questions of and challenges to media freedom. It is too easy to congratulate ourselves in the present when we consider the colonial and apartheid past in which censorship and the absence of media freedom was the rule of law. Who can forget the blacked out paragraphs of newspapers and magazines, and the arrest and killing of journalists in the apartheid era? It is a dark period in local media history, indeed.

However, while we have the Constitutional guarantees of media freedom in the post-apartheid dispensation, there are other new pressures which threaten true freedom for journalists. Some of these come from government officials who often are supporters of the Constitutional guarantees of media freedom in their statements, but can appear less than committed to such liberty in their actions.

A further threat to media freedom is the economic pressures which information vendors face in these times of constrained resources. The circulation figures of those newspapers of record are dwindling, and advertisers are fleeing to other platforms in which they can see greater return on investment. Journalists dedicated to the traditional business of providing accurate, verifiable, politically important information which reader-citizens can use in making their lives now find themselves having to compete for readers with outlets which have married entertainment and news, and in some cases, opted for the lurid headlines rather than the slow cycle of investigation and verification.

The Fourth Estate is in trouble in these troubled and troubling times. The practitioners of the craft of journalism in South Africa are luckier than many of their peers around the world, thus far. They are, for the most part, more fortunate than Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist who did important investigative work which contributed to the ‘Panama papers’ revelations, who was killed in a car bomb in Malta on Monday. They have not, as yet, been victimised in quite the violent ways of their peers in other parts of Africa and around the world.

However, in having to compete with other forms of information peddling which is not traditional hard news journalism, their numbers have been cut from newsrooms. They are not endangered as yet, but their survival is certainly under pressure. How do those ordinary writers and editors, photojournalists and investigative reporters, continue to do their work when the money is going elsewhere? How do they continue to do their hard and necessary jobs when audiences and readers have also migrated away from traditional outlets for news and information?

This is a challenge which could have consequences as dire for journalism as a watchdog, and for ordinary journalists working at their craft, as censorship.  Those who have lost readers who moved elsewhere may not be censored in the way of those in earlier generations, but they are as unread as those whose columns were blacked out.

The experience of those at the South African public broadcaster in 2016 is instructive in alerting us to old censorship habits which do not die easily. But the many newsrooms that have seen a reduction in the numbers of people working in them also demonstrate the threat to media freedom of money (or the absence of such), especially at the coal-face of journalistic practice.

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