Last year, both locally and abroad, a few public figures made comments that drew a wildly fake link between the Covid-19 virus and the arrival of 5G. The comments were utter nonsense: there is no scientific evidence behind them whatsoever. But social media picked them up and ran with them. People on social media who start an outraged tweet with “If this is true then…” ran riot.
Here is where it gets tricky: in my role as a spokesperson for MTN, I received calls from media (mostly radio looking for a 30-second sound bite), asking for comment and interviews on this wild conspiracy theory, which was creating more anxiety at a time when the world could least afford it.
It may appear that it is the job of the telecommunications industry (and its spokespeople) to quell such conspiracy theories, but many years of media experience has shown me that this doesn’t always happen. What happens more often is that when a company comments on something as outrageous as this claim, the headline reads (as it might have in this case) “MTN denies 5G causes Covid-19”. Just putting the name of the company in the same sentence as the conspiracy theory lends that theory credibility.
It’s not the role of reporters to simply report what one party said and then get comment from the other side. Reporters are more than just society’s stenographers; the job comes with way more responsibility than that. A good reporter should interrogate the veracity and credibility of an allegation before perpetuating it and lending it undue credibility. Fortunately, this kind of informed scrutiny largely occurred in this example.
Why am I writing about this now? Well, this experience once again confirmed to me and my colleagues at MTN the need for trusted, credible, and authentic news that is directed by reporters, news editors and editors who understand the importance of their roles in society.
Barack Obama said it best when he commented that a free press and freedom of speech must be upheld because, in the end, lies and misinformation are no match for the truth. With so much fake news floating around these days it is often forgotten that a free press is the cornerstone of democracy and we need look no further than the Covid-19 pandemic to realise the crucial role that reliable, truthful information plays in society.
It’s tough in the media sector. Publications and media providers across South Africa were hit hard by the Covid-19 shutdowns, the third and fourth waves, and the consequent lack of advertising revenue. News reporting has become a minefield, with a plethora of fake news threatening to drown out the truth.
The International Press Institute, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, urged governments worldwide to recognise the crucial role of independent news media in the coronavirus pandemic, and to ensure that emergency measures to tackle the disease were not used as a pretext to censor information or implement regressive regulations against media freedom.
But Amnesty International says journalists and media houses across East and Southern Africa came under increasing attack in the past year, despite the urgent need for access to information during the Covid-19 pandemic and other crises in the region. It says that media workers have been laid off, television stations suspended or shut down, the private press targeted and journalists intimidated in a heavy blow to the right to freedom of expression and access to information.
To help drive media freedom and ongoing access to trusted information, at the end of 2021, MTN added to its donation of half a million rand to the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) by providing a further R400 000 to the organisation. The focus of this donation is to fund the safety training of journalists. MTN also gave R400 000 to the Association of Independent Publishers. Almost 80 small print publications folded and as many as 700 journalists lost their jobs during the pandemic; MTN aims to assist smaller community publications in need.
The Association of Independent Publishers, a vibrant national organisation for advancing the interests of the local grassroots independent print media sector in South Africa, will use their donation to support small community publications affected by the recent looting and the decline in advertising.
Despite the challenges and difficult working conditions in the past two years, Sanef did sterling work to help ensure the safety of journalists during the pandemic. MTN wants to continue to assist in these key initiatives. They also dovetail well with MTN’s own drive to debunk the myths around vaccinations, to encourage mask wearing, and to sustain the levels of hygiene introduced in response to the pandemic.
Sanef will use a portion of its R400 000 for training journalists in conflict reporting; the 2021 looting and violence across South Africa emphasised the need for far greater support for journalists in the firing line.
Media shutdowns, unrest, corruption and the threat of violence against reporters remain a worrying threat to journalists — and to our democracy. We trust our assistance will help provide effective support for the country’s media industry, so that all South Africans have access to fast and reliable information they can trust, and those in power are held to account.