NEWS & ANALYSIS

Media for democracy

Rebecca Sibanda says traditional media is no longer sole channel for information exchange

World Press Freedom Day 2019 – Media for democracy

3 May 2019

World Press Freedom Day is commemorated on 3 May annually to emphasise the fundamental principles of press freedom, to defend the media from attacks on its independence, to evaluate the state of press freedom across the globe and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty and continue to brave unsafe digital and physical spaces for the sake of the truth.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has identified this year’s theme as “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”. This theme could not be more apt as numerous democracies, including South Africa, gear up for election season. For the majority of voters across the world, the press remains the sole source of information about the political parties contesting elections. From the individuals seeking election, to the manifestos of the parties, containing promises and assurances in exchange for votes come polling day. The discerning and privileged voter has the tools by which to analyse the information available and make informed decisions.

This is unfortunately not the case for most voters whose information is, again, limited.

As 8 May approaches, a deluge of voting material is filling South African news broadcasts and printed press. It is important that the information reaching eligible South African voters is both transparent and reliable, as it will directly influence decision-making in terms of the representatives who will stand for us for the next five years. The voters must rely on facts and not lies or propaganda. This is where the role of the press will be scrutinised. The verification of sources and information prior to dissemination is a fundamental step in the news sharing process, and is executed meticulously by trained journalists.

Traditional media is no longer the sole channel for information exchange as the digital space has become a serious contender for quick and easy access to information. As was seen in the controversial American election of 2016, social media has become instrumental in the pushing of populist narratives and intentional disinformation, thus influencing the voting habits of millions of American voters.  Disinformation and misinformation campaigns populated social media platforms and many unsuspecting news websites fell victim to them. 

The rise of citizen journalism has also had a hand in discrediting professional journalists and sharing fake news. Because information has become so easy to share, the verification process is being skipped altogether. 

Social media platforms themselves are struggling to address the advent of fake news. Although most of them have features that allow for the reporting of suspected fake news accounts, the incessant inundation of incorrect information has proven to be too much for them, with many users slipping through the cracks. Journalists now play the dual role of sharing information that they themselves research, as well as discrediting unreliable news sources. 

Another growing global concern is the relentless vilification of journalists by those who feel attacked or prejudiced (validly or otherwise) by their work. American President, Donald Trump, has often and vocally expressed his disdain for media houses and individuals who criticise him, his policies or his misstatement of facts. Closer to home, there have been a series of incidents that have put journalists in danger for challenging certain politicians publicly. Veteran journalist Karima Brown was attacked on social media after her personal contact details were shared by Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The abuse went as far as rape threats from angered EFF supporters. She has since approached the courts for recourse. Earlier this year, an eNCA journalist was also a victim to verbal abuse by African National Congress (ANC) deputy secretary-general during a press conference. 

These increasing threats against media freedom in South Africa have contributed to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) - a monitoring group which reports on the state of media freedom across the world, amongst other functions - downgrading South Africa in its World Press Freedom Index 2019 for the first time since 2013. South Africa dropped three places, from 28 in 2018, to 31 in 2019. This is no insignificant drop. The Index points to the spying on and tapping of journalists’ phones, the harassment of journalists who challenge members of the ruling party, and the rise in abusive language used against journalists. These attempts at intimidating and silencing the media serve to undercut a functioning democracy, which should be a collective project of all the stakeholders.

The role of the media is to hold government accountable, to support democracy, rightfully earning it the title of the Fourth Estate. Any attacks against the media should be seen as an attack against the Constitution, where press freedom is enshrined and protected under the right to freedom of expression in section 16. The growing impunity with which politicians address the media should be checked and addressed as it is problematic and in truth, a threat to democracy. 

It is symbolic that this year’s celebrations are being held in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia - a country in which until last year, journalists were jailed frequently. This changed in 2018 when the new Prime Minister Ahmed released all imprisoned journalists. Media reform is possible, the first step is to respect and acknowledge it, then give conscious effect to it, particularly as election day approaches.

*Read more about press freedom in South Africa in the CFCR’S annual publication - the Human Rights Report Card 2019.

By Ms Rebecca Sibanda, Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights.