What is the role of journalism in media, conflict and peace-building? This was the question raised at a two day workshop at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Windhoek last weekend. However, while the role of the news media in reporting on conflict as well as efforts to ameliorate the same, what came to be the main focus of discussions was the freedom of SADC journalist and impediments to reporting in political and cultural contexts that range from liberal democracy to autocracy.

Listening to journalists from Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Swaziland, it is striking that in South Africa and Namibia journalists enjoy freedoms far wider and far reaching than those of journalist colleagues in other SADC countries. The considerations that have to be weighed up these journalists in their daily reporting range from how not to offend the powers at be to how not to ruffle public sensitivities, often far more conservative than South African audiences.

While calls were heard for the news media to play a greater role in safeguarding human rights and exposing perpetrators of violence, journalist continue to face considerable threats to their own safety and security in the region. And there is a real need for the media to actively work to eliminate all forms of discrimination and intolerance whether based on gender, race, ethnicity or culture.

Still such discrimination sometimes find expressions in the coverage of the news media as well as in the newsroom. Particularly bad is the situation for female journalists. No more evident is this than through reporting directly from a conflict zone. Election fuelled violence was highlighted in particular, and closer to home, South African journalists recounted how reporting on service deliver protest for example had often put them in direct line of harm and violence. Once again, for female journalists this comes with additional risks.

In many cases, there is simply no room for bravery and self-censorship sets in where you know better than to flaunt the unwritten rules of what can and cannot be done or said within particular political and cultural contexts.

There were also fingers pointed at the news media for flaunting basic ethics and standards of reporting, particularly with regards to reporting on elections. Once again, much of what was said, and while it was agreed better training need to be provided on election coverage, there was also a sense that journalists in many instances have to play it safe as not to anger either powerful government officials, publishers, editors or audiences.

This said, it was humbling and truly inspiring to hear how much effort is put in to raising the bar of journalism in contexts where actively pushing for media freedom comes at considerable risks.

Most journalists seem well aware of the risks of playing up conflict at the detriment of conflict resolution. The idea that conflict sells newspapers might be built in to reporting conventions that dictate how to choose story angles that play up diverging view points and conflict between main parties and stakeholders, however, there is also a sense that such conventions might be broken and redefined in contexts where journalists are given more freedom to report according to their own conscience rather than according to dictates from government, owners or audiences.

In this context social media was raised as both an opportunity for more investigative and hard-hitting journalism as well as a platform to provide a more nuanced and contextualised journalism. In most national contexts however, questions were raised as to whether social media served as an extension of more traditional news platforms or if information and news written up in a journalist’s own personal capacity would remain free from interference at least from publishers and editors.

Social media, particularly in contexts less free, also posed a threat, and there were numerous accounts of how journalists had been attacked via social media and instances of stories being planted to discredit journalists. In some instances new technology and bots spreading fake news were behind such attacks. Elections and coverage of elections in the region have also been influenced by fake news. In any context countering fake news is hard, and as much as source verification was emphasised as key, how to counter fake news also seemed lodged in the relative freedoms enjoyed by journalists in different national contexts. This as fake news whether driven by commercial or political agendas, are often interlinked and driven by powerful interests that dictate coverage.

So, coverage is still dictated by the relative freedom enjoyed. Freedoms that vary vastly between the SADC countries on a scale from democracy to autocracy, no matter how closely geographically located. This said, what the workshop highlighted is the resilience, strength, bravery and outmost dedication that these SADC journalists all showed towards their profession and how aware they are of the need for pushing boundaries and to keep fighting for a journalism that is the best that it can be in any national, political and cultural context.