Editorial: Help defend the free press

Today is World Press Freedom Day. In South Africa, as in much of the world, there is little to celebrate. The independence of the fourth estate is under attack and faces a multitude of threats, which may cripple one of the pillars of this country’s democracy. South African journalists can count themselves fortunate that their right to freedom of expression is constitutionally protected. But this has not stopped them from being on the receiving end of harassment and intimidation from some of this country’s prominent political figures. This harassment is mirrored on social media, where journalists are singled out for vile abuse, including threats of violence and death.

At the same time, newsrooms have shrunk dramatically, limiting the ability of newspapers and broadcasters to do their work effectively. New research, to be published soon, will show that the number of working journalists in South Africa has declined by 50% in the last decade. The reason is mostly financial: advertising models have shifted, meaning that commercial behemoths such as Google and Facebook hoover up most of the advertising spend; and readers are no longer accustomed to paying for quality journalism, so most don’t.

Media ownership is becoming increasingly politicised, further undermining the independence of major broadcasters and titles. Take the SABC, which is struggling to recover from a concerted effort to turn it into a mouthpiece of the ruling party; and the Independent Media Group, which includes flagship titles such as The Star and the Cape Times, where journalists have been asked to further the personal interests of owner Iqbal Survé. If you doubt the value of independent journalism, remember that without it South Africa would never have known about state capture — or been in a position to stop it.

Fortunately, you can help. Buy newspapers. Stand up for journalists when they are being attacked. Be discerning about what you read and share — don’t let the fake news win. And, if you control an advertising budget, think carefully about how you spend it. Protecting journalism — and, by extension, democracy itself — is everyone’s responsibility.

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