Saturday October 19 marks the 42nd anniversary of Black Wednesday. This was the day that the apartheid government shut down three independent newspapers — The World, Weekend World and Pro Veritas — and arrested their editors. Nineteen black consciousness organisations were banned on the same day.
October 19 1977 was a dark day for journalism in South Africa. The good news is that the country has come a long way since then, and South African media have much to celebrate. Not only are our legal protections for a free and independent press among the strongest in the world, but our publications are using this freedom for its intended purpose: to hold the powerful to account.
Last month, three South African media outlets — The Daily Maverick’s Scorpio, amaBhungane and News24 — were awarded the Global Shining Light Award for their work on the Gupta Leaks, which exposed the horrifying scale to which the state had been captured by malign actors. This is one of the most prestigious awards in international investigative journalism, and a fitting tribute to a story that changed the fate of the nation. That story built on the dogged work of journalists at multiple outlets all over the country, including this one, who over the course of more than a decade exposed the rot at the heart of our government.
The powerful don’t go down without a fight, of course, and South African media continues to face considerable threats. And although the nature of those threats is different now than it would have been 42 years ago, they are no less serious.
Today, no one is worried that a South African editor might be locked up by the state for doing their job. But there are real fears that when political leaders insult and discredit journalists — including the leaking of personal information such as home addresses — this could incite violence against them.
Today, no one is worried that a story might get censored or suppressed (at least not in South Africa — the situation in other parts of the continent, such as Egypt, Rwanda and Tanzania, is very different). In the digital age, it is nearly impossible to prevent publication. But this comes with its own challenges: in the avalanche of news, both real and invented, it can be difficult for ordinary readers to discern what is credible and what is fabrication. It does not help that several political parties in this country appear to have resorted to dubious online practices, including the creation of “troll armies”, to further muddy the waters.
Today, no one is worried that the government might shut down or ban a critical publication — the legal protections are simply too strong for that. But publications may die instead from declining advertising revenue and plummeting sales figures, as consumers choose to read free content online rather than pay for physical newspapers or online subscriptions. But as the quantity and quality of media suffers all around the world, it is becoming increasingly clear that this “free content” comes at a considerable cost.
In the wake of Black Wednesday, South African media continued to fight for the right to do their job: to report the news, to tell the truth, and to hold the powerful to account. Ultimately, that fight was successful. Faced with new, 21st-century challenges, we have no choice but to do the same.