Forty-five journalists were killed worldwide in 2018. Some were caught in crossfire while covering running battles; others were on dangerous assignments in places such as Afghanistan and the Central African Republic — the kind of death that is a hazard of the job of reporting this kind of news.
But at least 28 others were murdered. They were killed because their work was deemed a threat by someone with enough power to order an assassination. And that’s just this year. In all, 849 journalists have been murdered since 1992. In nine out of 10 cases the killers go free.
To borrow from the Committee to Protect Journalists: “Murder is the ultimate form of censorship.”
But this culture of impunity is not only realised in the failure of justice systems to bring consequence to the act of murder. Impunity is bred in the everyday utterances of powerful people who threaten journalists and news publishers.
We could well disregard the utterances made this week by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema against journalists and commentators he called the “Ramaphosa Defence Force”. After listing seven people he alleges are complicit in a public campaign to defend President Cyril Ramaphosa, Malema said the EFF had to “deal with them decisively”.
He added that this decisive action should not take the form of a physical attack, which he deemed to be the realm of the smaller-minded. But his caveat is ultimately bereft of substance.
Many of the journalists on Malema’s list have already been subjected to a torrent of abuse on social media platforms — much of that abuse from users identifying themselves as EFF supporters. And, yes, some of the abuse is just noisy proclamations of continued support for the party, but others show a more sinister intent.
Malema has to take responsibility for this. He is stoking the flames of a campaign against journalists whose work he disputes. It’s not the first time he’s done this. Earlier this year Malema took to Twitter to accuse eNCA of advocating an “anti-black agenda” and supporting white supremacy. He wondered (aloud) whether a proper analysis would determine that the television broadcaster was doing for white people what ANN7 did for the Guptas.
Never mind, though, because just a few months down the line, Malema would appear on the selfsame eNCA, all purportedly forgiven.
Malema is within his rights, just as anyone else is, to criticise publishers of the news and have discussions with journalists about their work. But his comments this week (as well as earlier comments) are more than robust criticism.
Concerted campaigns driven by inflammatory remarks ultimately endanger the lives of journalists. Malema must show a modicum of responsibility for whipping his supporters into a frenzy over his enemy du jour.
And the public must call it out every time. When Malema, Floyd Shivambu and the rest of the party attacked ANN7, forcing them out of press briefings, and refusing to speak to the channel’s reporters, there was not enough of a public outcry. ANN7 and all that it represented was too firmly fixed in our minds as the “bad guys”.
But the sentiment would culminate in a 2017 attack on an ANN7 journalist by a group of people wearing EFF regalia, who called her names before pouring water over her. It was a direct consequence of the “Gupta agent” lines Malema had been wont to throw around.
Now, a few months later, new enemies have been anointed. We must defend their right to do their work, even if and when that work is in conflict with our own opinions and beliefs.