Media Freedom and the #FeesMustFall movement

By Chelsea Haith

South African students have resumed their demands for free education. While the resumption of protests has drawn critique and confusion, media freedom is also in question. Journalists, including student journalists, have been issued with a set of ‘rules’ by the #FeesMustFall movement at the university currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR), and these rules are deeply disturbing to say the least. Where do we draw the line between being a journalist and being a student?

Last week the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande announced that the fee increase for 2017 will be capped at 8% and that fees will increase only for students whose families earn over R600,000 per annum in 2017. At UCKAR student protests have been marginally cowed by an interdict that has been extended to 3 November.

The interdict bars illegal protest action following the protests against rape culture at the university in April.

As a result, students have been mobilising in the heart of the campus instead of near public roads. There is no defined leadership structure in the movement, and while this suggests equity, it has in fact resulted in a movement that struggles to define and direct its attention and focus. This has resulted in some protestors behaving in ways that undermine the cause or are in contravention of the interdict. Some students have been intimidated and threatened by student protestors entering residences and lecture venues, while other constituencies of the movement reject the militancy of this kind of mobilisation.

Media rules

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-2-11-14-pmA list of ‘Media Rules’ was published by the RU Fees Must Fall 2016 Facebook page, stating: “No pictures, filming or any journalism at strategy meetings or plenaries. Journalists are not allowed to be at a plenary, if you are a student journalist, you are just a student at the plenary. Furthermore, no publishing of strategy is allowed or will be tolerated.”

It is not clear what is meant by the implication that publishing protest strategies will not be ‘tolerated’. Some student journalists at UCKAR have been intimidated and threatened by protestors. The official photographer of the movement, Olorato Mongale, argued that this intimidation is the work of individuals in the movement and that these intimidating protestors are not representative of the movement as a whole. Regardless, publishing dictatorial rules that echo the intention of the Secrecy Bill surely undermines the fight for freedom and equality in our society.

Being both a student and protestor is extremely difficult and there comes a moment in every protest when you have to choose which hat you’re going to wear.

Historical tension

There is a history of distrust for student media at UCKAR where the Black Students Movement (BSM) and The Oppidan Press clashed on this very issue during the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests. The publication of protest strategy in particular was considered problematic. What this concern perhaps fails to account for is the number of students that rely on the student media during times of protest for information. The credibility of these organisations relies on finding the balance between endangering protestors and keeping students informed.

In the same way that rogue individuals are not representative of the whole movement, neither are all journalists intent on painting the movement and the protestors in a negative light. It becomes, perhaps inevitably, a conversation about people, personal politics and compassionate practice.

Who benefits?

Many student journalists have cut their teeth on the protests at UCKAR and this complicates their relationship to the movement, regardless of the fact that they are both journalists and students. The kind of experience the protests have given dozens of young journalists is priceless but what emerges is also a situation in which pain, very often black pain, is problematically commodified and used for work experience and exposure in the industry.

Student journalists are also caught in a Catch-22 because the kind of sensitivity that the protestors have called for in their Media Rules is crucial but doing your job is just as important. Inevitably a journalist’s sensitivity and politics informs the framing of the story. Objectivity is a myth and we need a more self-aware engagement with what that means in our own practice. Even thinking about writing this piece requires an ethical engagement. I have to consider my privilege and position in relation to what I’m writing about. I have to be aware at all times of the way that my race and class complicate my perspective and also the way my work will be read by others. I have to acknowledge, as I hope I am doing now, how my limitations inform my framing of the story.

In situations like the one at UCKAR right now where an interdict hangs over the student body, journalists have to consider the damage a single photograph or tweet could do: for example get a student or staff member arrested or excluded. At the same time they need to get information to the people that need it and while doing so consider their framing of the situation so that the narrative does not demonise or dehumanise the protestors. This means asking yourself all the right questions all the time, because the consequences of unengaged reporting affect people’s lives.

Choosing your story

While publishing Media Rules has been interpreted as a veiled threat of oppression of the right to free speech, it is also an attempt by student protestors to control their own narrative in a media landscape that has painted them as irrational, stupid, immoral and animalistic. This does not make the publication of such rules acceptable, but it does suggest that some introspection is necessary for journalists because if the very people we say we’re trying to protect by giving them fair coverage still feel as though they’re being misrepresented then surely we should be doing better?

Despite the honourable intention of a leaderless cause, the #FeesMustFall movement risks derailing itself should it fail to cohere across the education sector throughout institutions of learning, and journalists could play an essential role in putting across the variegated nature of the movement which faces a variety of complex challenges across the country. The movement should not forget that media freedom is crucial to a democracy and regardless of the various problems that democracies pose it seems to be the best bad option we have right now.

More stories in Issue 76

Contributors

Chelsea Haith

Chelsea Haith, a Postgrad student at the university currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR), is interested in determining whether writing is actually a viable career option and spends her days trying to convince herself that it is. She is a student of literature, freelances as a journalist, and works as the Media Officer at the Gender […]

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