“An under-resourced newsroom is a threat to media freedom”

Media freedom and democracy go hand in hand

In March, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Media Monitoring Africa and the Oslo Freedom Forum hosted a panel discussion and dialogue named “Media Under Fire”. The dialogue was part of ongoing work to engage with the media in South Africa. The event sought to explore new threats posed to the media, as well how journalists begin to self-censor when they find themselves under threat.

The panel included award-winning Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais; Palestinian blogger Iyad el-Baghdadi; Zineb El Rhazoui, a Morocco-born French human rights activist and former Charlie Hebdo columnist; Khadija Patel, editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian; and Krivani Pillay, an executive producer at the SABC and one of the so-called “SABC 8” who were fired for speaking out against the broadcaster’s decision to stop reporting on service delivery protests.

It was noted that media freedom is inseparable from democracy. As panellist Iyad el-Baghdadi explained, “In a democracy, citizenship is political agency. How can people [exercise political agency via the] vote if they are not informed?”

While journalists and activists such as Marques de Morais, el-Baghdadi and Zineb El Rhazoui face prosecution, physical assault and even death because of their work, threats to media freedom can also be subtle, said Khadija Patel. In democracies such as South Africa, where the Constitution protects media freedom and is enforceable, journalists have to guard against becoming “embedded with power players”, something that could happen in seemingly innocuous ways, Patel explained.

It is no longer news that the internet has made inroads into traditional journalism’s financial model, reducing media companies’ income, said Patel. She offered this as part of the reason why journalists in South Africa appear to have lost the confidence of the public, who sometimes attack them while they are doing their work. It appeared the public often believe journalists are working for social elites, disseminating their worldview, whereas journalists need to be careful to give voice to all, and especially the underdog.

However, newsrooms are severely under-resourced, which often means reporters are simply unable to spend the time needed to investigate properly. “I cannot underscore how an under-resourced newsroom is a threat to media freedom,” she said.

Adding to the onslaught against journalism is the growing might of the communications and public relations industries, said Chris Vick, panel moderator and director of Black, a reputation management consultancy. He went on to explain that in the United States there are approximately 6 000 public relations agents for each working journalist. Agreeing with Vick, Patel explained how the communications and public relations industry is becoming increasingly clever, which makes it ever more important to be vigilant against co-option.

Another danger to journalism, and democracy, is that authoritarian governments have woken up to the power of social media, said el-Baghdadi. Instead of shutting the internet down, as these types of governments have done in the past, they use social media to raise doubt.

Fake news is damaging and should not be ignored, said el-Baghdadi. “If I go to buy a bottle of Pepsi and it turns out to be a bottle of poison, someone has cheated me. We in the media have a responsibility to publish facts.”

The flip side of the internet and social media equation is that it is often the only platform open to journalists who work in places where there is no media freedom, said El Rhazoui. Marques de Morais agreed, saying: “In a non-democracy, your first fight is to fight for space; that is your activism.”

Each panellist was able to explain how they ended up becoming both activists and journalists in their careers. Pillay said she is a “reluctant activist”, but “when you are on the right side there is something in you that just clicks” – this is despite the internal threats and intimidation that had led to her considering self-censorship.

While the dialogue ended up offering more questions than answers, it was an important step in understanding a new and difficult terrain for media both in South Africa and internationally.

Listen to the dialogue on Soundcloud

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