Needed: The media’s own Malema

Media coverage helped to make ANC Youth League president Julius Malema into a significant celebrity. What the media now needs is to make its own star who can champion the cause of media freedom.

The ANCYL’s attacks on journalists have gone beyond mere criticism. They are intimidating and dirty assaults that threaten the very fundamentals of media freedom.

No one in the press is bowing to the pressure — yet. But that could happen unless there’s resistance.

The question is whether to fight fire with fire, and to hit back at the spoilers of media freedom with equal rhetoric, aggression and sensation.

In an unstable climate, using only water could make the media look watered down.

Of course, editors may argue that they use neither fire nor water against the bullyboys of the ANCYL — they use earth. Solid, if staid, facts are their weapons.

That’s ok. Except that pure reason never defeated populist politics. Defenders of journalism need a combination of tactics — including some popular rhetoric.

This was highlighted by Tuesday May 3, being World Press Freedom Day. The date is something African editors gave to the globe via a ringing declaration on media freedom when they met in Windhoek in 1991.

Hard work went into getting Unesco and then the UN General Assembly to officially recognise the date and put it on the international calendar to mark the importance of media freedom.

But where was the South African coverage to campaign for media freedom on May 3 this year? Answer: largely absent while on duty.

And where is the articulate South African editor who today can command popular respect amongst the citizenry? Someone who can express collective concerns about the looming spectre of Malema-ism and not rely on wishful thinking that the ANC will sort him out?

There is one reason why no such person comes to mind, and why there is no strong voice today to tell the thugs that gagging free expression is not allowed in this country.

This reason is that the generation of outspoken editors has gone. In the past three years, the media has lost dozens of these people. Mondli Makhanya, ex-editor of the Sunday Times, is one recent casualty. Henry Jeffreys of Die Burger is another.

Veterans Mathatha Tsedu and Khathu Mamaila (formerly of City Press) are now out of the game. Thabo Leshilo (formerly of the Sowetan) has been moved upstairs in his company, wielding influence now, but not power.

Then there are retired or resigned editors like Tyrone August, Ivan Fynn, Lizeka Mda, David Wightman, Peter Sullivan and Pippa Green. The list goes on.

The new guard that has taken their place is doing pretty well at the level of journalistic products, but they are nigh invisible in the South African National Editors Forum.

All this is happening in a time when the ANCYL claims that South African journalism is “in the sewer”. On the contrary, this Wednesday saw the Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Awards celebrating super-strong journalism during the past year’s work.

This level of journalistic performance is taking place in an environment of not only politically-inspired pressures, but also retrenchments and budget cuts. It’s a paradox that such a context is seeing better and better journalism.

That surprising, yet excellent, outcome reflects hard slog in the newsroom — doing more with less. It needs to continue, and to improve even further. But it’s still not enough to secure the case for media freedom.

Editors and journalists alike need not just to walk the talk, but talk it as well. And to talk more loudly and more often about the motives of those attacking the media.

In Mpumalanga, corruption busters are being assassinated. Provincial ANCYL secretary Isaac Mahlangu warned the media in January that “our machine guns are ready”.

So, will it be journalists next to be silenced by people whose deals are being exposed? And will South African journalism stand aside to allow the rise and rise of political forces whose trade is thuggery and whose tolerance of truth is zero?

Standing up for, and shouting out about, the media is what’s needed now. It’s a logical and self-interested response by those working in the industry. And it is also something that coincides directly with the interests of the public.

The editors’ forum previously ran a campaign under the slogan “Media Freedom is Your Freedom”. It’s time to revive and escalate that movement. And it’s time the media got mobilised, and built up its own champion to secure the cause.

* This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author.

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