/ 15 August 2022

Delving into the South African media landscape with the Africa Media Barometer

Printing Press
[Photo: Supplied]

Community media in South Africa is under-recognised for its significant work reaching communities and covering issues that directly affect communities, said the association chair of independent producers, Mbali Dhlomo. The African Media Barometer examines national media environments. The lack of funding threatened the survival of 43 community radio stations in 2019. Other stations have had to collaborate to stay operational, leading to a diminished diversity of news sources, according to the report. 

Fesmedia Africa jointly developed the report — the media project of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) — to lobby for media reform. Facilitated by Ayanda Nyathi, the panellists were broadcaster, journalist and public policy dialogue moderator Tsepiso Makwetla, television and radio presenter Oliver Dickson, activist and digital communication specialist Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile and Dhlomo.

The panellists agreed that the South African media landscape could benefit significantly from a proactive and beneficial working relationship between community media and mainstream media. Both parties can benefit from sharing stories as community media has direct access to the voices and issues that mainstream media often only reports on a surface level, said seasoned broadcaster, Makwetla. She made an example of the July 2021 riots and pointed out the role community media played in communicating the scope and depth of the damage caused. 

Unfortunately, community media outlets have become accustomed to working with few resources because the struggle for funding is as old as community media itself. Dhlomo called for the support and recognition of community media, noting that the support they received from the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), Rhodes University school of journalism and other media institutions wasn’t enough to sustain conducive working conditions.

The question of media being under-resourced is a significant challenge that presents itself in various problems that affect the overall dissemination of information. The most apparent damage caused by lack of resources is the training journalists need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. It is generally assumed that junior journalists will learn how to tell stories on the job, yet when they make mistakes in telling those stories, we are quick to shun them with no sympathy for their working conditions and training. The writers are likely to take more flack for the error than the publication. 

Time away from the newsroom to attend training is often a challenge for the upkeep of under-resourced publications that rely on a few journalists to tell stories with short turnaround times that don’t allow much room for nuance — deep analysis requires time. 

The mental well-being of journalists has also not been prioritised, which saw many journalists struggling during the pandemic, said Phalaetsile. 

Phalaetsile said she gathered a few journalists during the pandemic to talk about mental well-being in the newsroom and emphasised the need for spaces that allow journalists to speak about their challenges. The representative from Sanef said they are trying to address the challenge of journalists’ mental well-being, but they too have a lot on their plate. 

We are human beings before we are journalists, which means we are likely to make mistakes and likely have personal opinions and feelings on the subject matter we write about, which informs how we choose to tell those stories. Training is essential in helping journalists understand and abide by the ethics and standards for best practices in journalism when telling stories to ensure that we don’t cause harm due to our inability to reflect on our views honestly. 

Journalism is a highly stressful career with little physical or financial security. Take the pandemic, for example, and consider the number of journalists who lost their jobs due to the closure of publications, freelancers who were out of work and journalists who had to expose themselves to the coronavirus to make sure we still had news about our country. 

Self-censorship is a real challenge in the newsroom because journalists must constantly consider their job security when they have to stand up for themselves to their editors. Journalists have to navigate their way in the competitive newsrooms. They are often overworked and underpaid, exposing them to exploitation and susceptible to participating in unethical interactions that promise monetary relief.

The report was based on ten panellists from media and civil society in a panel discussion at Kopanong Hotel & Conference Centre, in Benoni. One panellist, Asonele Phiri, pointed out how LGBTQIA people are misrepresented or under-represented in the media, and it was agreed that journalists need to be trained on the correct language to use when reporting about sexual minorities. 

Earlier this year, I facilitated a panel for journalists from African countries reporting on sexual minorities organised by Taboom Media and COSPE eSwatini. One of the most prominent themes that emerged from the discussion was our journalists become targeted when they report on sexual minorities and how, despite the journalists doing their best to tell humanising stories about the LGBTQIA  community, the buck rests with editors, who often impose their views on how journalists should or shouldn’t tell their stories. 

The SABC, as a public broadcaster, has adopted the press code, which was noted as a good mark of progress by a respondent in the audience because it means they are allowing themselves to be transparent in abiding by the ethics of journalism.

Makwetla noted that In Africa, where many public broadcasters are used for propaganda, it is easier to point fingers at the SABC for its ANC-aligned perspectives than to equally interrogate the role of the commercial press in questioning its views. We need to examine the role of the press holistically, including commercial media.  

The media is also referred to as the fourth estate because it is the fourth arm of power in deciding the fate of a society. It is this power Theodore Roosevelt referred to when he said that “the power of the journalist is great, but he is entitled neither to respect nor admiration because of that power unless it is used right”.

Perhaps the most crucial suggestion to help alleviate the challenges that journalists face today, which essentially involves making sure journalists have the best environment in which to tell the truth, is the unionisation of journalists. 

Media professionals must unite and organise themselves to advocate for better working conditions. It should have been a great concern to our nation when the media worker’s union was shut down due to a lack of resources and what the secretary-general called a “sinister political decision designed to muzzle” the union’s independence. One has to ask how this move differs from the apartheid government banning the black journalist union (which morphed into the Writers Association of South Africa and, subsequently, the media worker’s union) in 1977. 

We need bold media leadership with a clear and collective vision for the working conditions of a journalist today. Sanef tries with initiatives such as relief funds, writing policy submissions, research, education and training programmes for journalists.  

Journalists need all the training they can get in this age of infodemic — the rise of fake news due to social media. Fake news is rampant. News outlets and journalists must be more vigilant in verifying information before publishing stories to maintain credibility as a trusted news source, the very heart of the media business. 

Sanef called for journalists and media professionals to comment on the protection of information act to ensure media freedom is protected even if amendments are made to adapt the activities to digital information. Although social media has enabled for many voices to be heard, particularly voices that wouldn’t have ordinarily had media attention to be heard, it has also become unregulated, with social media companies wielding more power than governments. Power is dangerous when unregulated, which is why media professionals must apply themselves in adapting journalistic ethics to the regulation of digital media. 

Another meaningful relationship that needs to be harnessed to improve the working conditions of journalists is the relationship between media and civil society organisations. Civil society is doing a lot of work to ensure governments are fulfilling their responsibilities to the public. These organisations can offer their extensive research, expertise and training to journalists. In turn, journalists can teach the public about the avenues available to them to make sure their government is fulfilling its responsibilities to them. A relationship between the media and civil society organisations can benefit the public they are trying to serve for so long as they remain accountable to that public and each other.

The relationship between the journalist and a politician is fraught because the truth is a powerful weapon in politics. Even with legislation protecting media freedom and freedom of expression, journalists still get threatened with their jobs and sometimes lives for telling the truth. Though it’s not as gloomy as it may sound because our legislation is on the side of the truth.

Access to information is guaranteed in Section 32(1) of the Constitution, and protections under the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 allow access to any information held by the state and private bodies required to exercise other rights. Adopting the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA on 1 July 2020 is another mark that our institutions remain steady pillars upon which we can build a better society.

If we keep holding power to account, the truth will prevail, and the republic will be better for it.

Article written by Welcome Mandla Lishivha, author of ‘Boy On The Run’, and a doctoral candidate in jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria.