HomeLocal NewsMedia, journalism under threat: What can civil society do?

Media, journalism under threat: What can civil society do?

Mark Heywood human rights :activist

SOCIAL justice activism and the media need each other. But in the greater interests of democracy and equality, they both need to work on their marriage.
The media has been under attack for a long time. Sadly though, this is not only from dictators, corrupt criminal networks and those who benefit from obscuring the truth about what is happening in society.

This we expect. We can handle our enemies. What is equally threatening now is the pressure from commercial and economic forces, and the shift to digital media, which has reduced advertising revenues that for a century held up print media, and the daily newspaper in particular.

Covid-19 has accelerated these pressures.

A recent report by the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), for example, points to “the devastation that Covid-19 has wreaked … particularly on the print media” listing “the closure of two magazine publishers and 80 small print publications leading to the loss of over 700 journalist jobs”.

In addition, it reports that the majority of freelance journalists have “lost almost 70% of their income — and some had lost 80%-100%”.

Although print media may be bearing the brunt, the media and society as a whole carries the cost.

Unfortunately, this haemorrhage is far from over.

It should not be like this. During the Covid-19 lockdown, the media was deemed an “essential service”. Journalists provided a crucial window on the epidemic, particularly its toll on communities, exposing police brutality and the corruption, but also telling the good news stories of community resilience and solidarity.

Unfortunately, the lack of public outcry and response to the crisis facing journalists, particularly from civil society activists, suggests that the centrality of the media in our democracy is not widely appreciated.

So let me state the equation bluntly: the media is vital to civil society; civil society is vital to the media; both are vital to participatory democracy; democracy is vital to social justice.

Civil society and the media
How do we help people to join these dots? I would suggest we look at the issue from two angles:

The relationship between civil society and the media;
The relationship between media and civil society;

Civil society activism often depends on journalists for in-depth investigations, such as the #GuptaLeaks, but even more so for surfacing and reflecting on the day-to-day issues that confront our society, such as disease outbreaks, pervasive hunger, water shortages and municipal corruption. Issues that are otherwise hidden and unacknowledged.

This is why it is surprising to find that, with the exception of the few organisations that have a dedicated focus on media — Right2Know, the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), Media Monitoring Africa and the SOS Coalition are the obvious examples — civil society has a mostly passive relationship with the media.

Civil society is outspoken against “captured media”, such as the SABC during the reign of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, or of ANN7; it is vocal when journalists get things wrong.

But it mostly lacks a proactive relationship with the media: to a large degree, freedom of expression and access to information are being taken for granted, and are not guarded.

There is a danger that an apolitical and ahistorical view of the media is taking root.

In addition, while fake news is condemned, consistently promoting the constitutional role of the media, and the need to shore it up and democratise it, is not seen as a strategy to counter fake news and misinformation.

Arguably, the connection to democracy is not properly appreciated. The survival and strengthening of the media is rarely framed as a political or a human rights issue. The fact that journalism keeps the oxygen flowing for active citizenship, that news is the “meat” of participatory democracy, and is vital to countering populism etc. is also not properly understood.

In South Africa, media rights fall under the section in the Bill of Rights that deals with Freedom of Expression. The constitution proclaims “everyone has a right to receive or impart information or ideas”. This right is linked to other rights, particularly to access to information.

However, these rights are not self-executing, they mean nothing on their own; they mean nothing without a media architecture that is capable of gathering and disseminating information to everyone.

Put another way, the effect on democracy of not having equal access to a quality and truth-based media will be measured in the rise of populism, fundamentalism and the further breakdown of social cohesion.

Unfortunately, the failure to see this raises questions about the siloed way in which civil society works and sees the world as much as it does about the media.

The question is whose responsibility this is and how do we address it?

The media and civil society
Having fairly recently crossed the floor from civil society to the media allows me to reflect on my own experience and articulate views which also inform the editorial approach we are developing at Maverick Citizen.

I will put things starkly in order to provoke debate.

Unfortunately, the media often has an incomplete and shallow view of who makes news. Its focus is largely on business, the economy, politics, government, with civil society often only included as an afterthought.

Although the nonprofit sector, social movements and activism are often the source of news, the head of the river, the place where issues are turned into issues, the media clearly does not understand the dynamics or architecture of civil society: even in the training of journalists, civil society does not seem to be seen as an issue for study or area for specialisation. As a result, voices are routinely overlooked.

In a book that is being launched tomorrow (on Wednesday), Tell Our Story: Multiplying Voices in the News Media, reviewed by Maverick Citizen, Julie Reid and Dale McKinley, have the following to say about this:

“South Africa is a country that includes, and is predominantly populated by, the economically marginalised and the poor.

Yet, voice(s) from this sector are habitually excluded. The segment of society that enjoys the largest representation of mediated voice is but a small section of the citizenry. How then are we to know what is going on in our world when we are presented with such a limited picture?

“Additionally, when so under-informed about a broader spectrum of realities, how can we realistically initiate national discourse aimed at societal coherence, economic development or meaningful promotion of social justice? In simple terms, how can we solve our own problems when we have very little idea of what is really going on?”

Book review: ‘Tell Our Story’
Further, even when the media does report on civil society, it is frequently de-politicised, presented as if NGOs operate in a vacuum, neither causing or being affected by other societal processes.

Finally, the media exhibits a sometimes romantic and uncritical view of civil society — there needs to be more probing. Civil society is also capable of corruption, wasteful expenditure, overpaying its executives, so it follows that it too must be scrutinised and more accountable.

Above all, the media needs to see civil society as crucial to its own survival. Unlike the corporate sector or government, it will never be a source of revenue, but it is a critical consumer, producer, purveyor and protector of news.

It deserves more.

So what is to be done?

The media and independent journalism has a heroic tradition in South Africa. Yet awareness of this tradition — and what it achieved in the struggle for liberation and our constitution — is waning amongst the new generations of activists.

How many people are aware of a tradition that reaches back to John Tengo Jabavu and his paper Imvo Zabantsundu; Sol Plaatjie and Koranta ea Becoana, encompasses Ruth First and her ground-breaking exposés of slavery on potato farms in Bethal; Nat Nakassa; the (original and legitimate) New Age, the Rand Daily Mail, the New Nation, the Weekly Mail, South and Vrye Weekblad. Never mind community and underground newspapers such as Inqaba Ya Basebenzi.

Emboldened by this proud tradition, the media needs to reach out to civil society and prophesy the consequences for human rights, and social justice if we permit its collapse under democracy.

To illustrate this, I would recommend another book, this time by veteran US reporter Anne Nelson, Shadow Network, Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. In it, Nelson documents the decline of the media in the US. She shows how, from a high between 1970 and 1990 when “Newspaper penetration peaked and … the ratio of circulation to American households approached one to one”, a complex range of factors impacted to undermine the “news ecosystem”.

Some of these factors were benign, others related to a deliberate attempt by the right wing to capture the media and use it to advance their aim to capture the US presidency (which, with a little bit of help from Russia, they succeeded in doing).

The result has been devastating.

Nelson calls it a “colony collapse”, she says:

“Local voices were silenced, local populations abandoned. Newspaper ownership was increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”

“Since 2004, almost 1 800 US newspapers have disappeared altogether, and hundreds of communities have become ‘news deserts’ without a single local news organisation. These are disproportionately communities of older, lower-income residents without college education.”

As intended, into the vacuum stepped the radical right and fundamentalist Christians, who worked together to launch a new age of media (sound familiar?) based on fake news, an agenda to undo many of the progressive and democratic gains achieved as a result of activism in the US over the last 50 years.

As in the US, Covid-19 has merely accelerated a crisis in the media that was already there. Stemming this crisis will require journalists and organisations like Sanef to reach out to communities, and civil society to show the possibilities and the importance of their craft.

But to do this successfully, the media will also need to rethink itself and engage in its own process of introspection.

The media is a web. For the colony to survive, it needs internal solidarity between its parts. The overall project cannot progress if all the parts are not functioning, or if certain parts are rotten.

One of the lessons we should learn from the US is that it is not sufficient for democracy that parts of the media are strong (the papers that occupy what Nelson calls the “Boston-Washington corridor”) while community newspapers and radio stations are collapsing.

Ultimately, therefore, the protection and promotion of the profession of journalism is a political project. Yes, it must be objective and fair, accountable and transparent. It must abide by its ethics. But it is not neutral. If we look back through history, we will find that the media was always connected to advancing democracy. This is what is at stake. — Daily Maverick/Maverick Citizen.

Heywood is a South African human rights and social justice activist based in Johannesburg.

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