Twenty years of the Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards

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In 2021, we mark 20 years of the Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards, a befitting moment to reaffirm what the awards mean to us — a representation of Vodacom’s commitment to freedom of expression and media independence. 

Vodacom does not exist in a vacuum but as part of a society rooted in a constitutional democracy. We recognise that we operate in a country with high levels of inequality, poverty, and unemployment. This triple scourge gives rise to many other societal ills such as crimes of greed and crimes of need. The most recent reminder of our societal challenges was the destruction of property in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal which cost more than 300 lives, billions of rands in damaged infrastructure and food shortages in addition to the various psychological impacts. Yet, despite these challenges, as South Africans we continue to celebrate life and the beauty of this country. 

Amid these expressions of anger, joy and pride, there are selfless people in the journalism profession who are always ready to capture these moments through live reporting, newsroom broadcasts, photography, analysis and publications, in order to ensure that not only is the nation informed of what’s happening around us, but for the world at large to see our moments of pain, anger, rampage and celebration. These professionals speak truth to power, and in some instances risk their lives to keep us informed. They remind us of who we are and what we stand for as a nation and nudge us to reflect when we stray from the values of human rights and human dignity that are encapsulated in the constitution. 

The VJOY Awards were introduced in 2001 with the objective to honour and celebrate the journalism profession and to demonstrate Vodacom’s commitment to the Bill of Rights. The awards event has evolved over the years. Honouring selfless individuals from this prestigious profession requires an independent panel of judges that receives nominations and assesses them objectively and through robust processes.

The panel of judges is currently presided over by stalwart journalist Ryland Fisher, who has in turn identified other seasoned members of the media to serve on the panel. The panel continues to be governed by the code of ethics applicable to the journalism profession and they serve with integrity and highest standards of ethics, independent of Vodacom management. 

Twenty years ago, print media and broadcasting were the most notable forms of reporting. Fast forward to today, and the award categories have been aligned to reflect our digital world and converging technologies. The awards recognise that most South Africans have access to digital tools and platforms and that news breaks every minute of the day, blurring the line between ethical, unethical, informal and formal reporting. At the centre of the proliferation of these digital tools and platforms is the potential for fake news, making the need for committed professionals to produce accurate and timely reporting more important than ever before.

There are 13 categories for adjudication: investigative, opinion, feature, politics, lifestyle, financial economics, sport, sustainability, live reporting/breaking news, young journalist, photography and innovation in journalism. 

Each category has clear guidelines on what’s expected from entrants and what the panel of judges should focus on to decide on the winner for each category. Stories captured include uncovered corruption, horrific acts of violence, analysed opinions on developing national trends and emotive sport reports among others, and we are now seeing fascinating reports on environmental issues aligned with climate change trends. 

The award ceremony is an opportunity to reflect on the news headlines of the past year and applaud the stellar work produced by the country’s media.

This event celebrates the profession and its integral part in our daily lives. The judges remarked that the quality of entries continue to improve year-on-year. It’s inspiring how the profession continues to thrive despite difficult circumstances — we read and see stories of our journalists not just caught in dangerous reporting situations or being threatened, but there’s also a worrying trend of camera crews being robbed on duty.

However, in 20 years, the journalism profession and the awards have not been without controversy — there have been cases of inept media reporting that threatened the reputation of the profession. In 2019 an extract from a presentation during the awards went viral on social media, leading to vandalism of Vodacom stores. The viral nature of the post demonstrated the ubiquity of the digital space, and the response moved us to reflect more on media freedom and freedom of expression. Looking back, one can say, it was an eventful 20 years, with lessons learnt and shared, and stars honoured for excellent achievements. 

Vodacom remains committed to the awards and the independence of the journalism profession. We look forward to the next 20 years, and we thank the journalists who enter the competition annually and the judges for their time and professionalism. Being nominated is a great achievement — winning the VJOY Award is the cherry on top!

— Takalani Netshitenzhe is Vodacom’s South Africa Chief Officer for External Affairs

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