23 April 2019

South Africa: World Press Freedom Day 2019

Photo: UNESCO
The World Press Freedom Day poster for 2019.
opinion

May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day. It gives us an opportunity to assess the progress of our profession annually.

Before this day, the world's biggest media freedom NGO, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes a Freedom Index that ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists.

This year South Africa lies at 31st place scoring higher than both the United Kingdom (UK) at 40 and the United States of America (USA) that has dropped to 48. On the continent, Namibia at 23 and Ghana at 27 scored higher than South Africa. Three African countries beat the USA by substantial margins in a year that its president has characterised African nations and others as 'shithole countries.' Imagine, President Trump. How on earth did that happen?

The Index is not an indicator of the quality of journalism in each country. It is a snapshot of media freedom based on the evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country. Self-censorship and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information are also considered.

Broadly, the 2019 Index shows the number of countries where journalists can work in complete security continues to decline. The hostility of political leaders towards journalists in many countries has often led to acts of violence fuelling unprecedented levels of fear and danger for journalists. At the same time, nearly half of the world population still lacks access to free information. Imagine that!

Killing of journalists is no longer confined to war zones. In 2018, the United States had the third-highest number of journalists killed worldwide largely as a result of the attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis in Maryland leaving five journalists dead. The gunman was arrested as journalists crouched under their desks.

The slaughter of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Kashoggi in his country's embassy in Turkey has taken the killing of journalists to a new height. We understand that those responsible have been arrested but the details of their fate remain obscure.

The Turkish government's vociferous defence of Kashoggi is to be welcomed but is rather ironic. As I speak, 68 journalists languish in Turkish jails, more than any other country in the world.

At a time like this, it may seem that these problems are insurmountable.

History shows that small numbers of dedicated journalists and others prepared to lead can bring change in different situations.

When President Trump made his outrageous statement about our countries, the CEO of Business Unity South Africa, Bonang Mohale did not hesitate to protest. He penned an open letter to him, which you can read in his book, Lift As You Rise, and supported a boycott of President Trump's address to delegates at Davos.

Like the USA, Mohale said, Africa is so much more than the sum of its shortcomings. "It is a vibrant, beautiful continent populated by proud people who daily face their challenges head-on, with dignity and with courage, creativity and ingenuity."

May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day, is an illustration of such courage and creativity. A small group of African journalists gifted this day to the world. Let me tell you the story.

Nearly 30 years ago, in 1991 a group of African journalists met in Windhoek Namibia and crafted the Windhoek Declaration on Press Freedom. They finalised their definition of press freedom on May 3rd 1991. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) funded the seminar.

The United Nations agreed to adopt the Windhoek declaration in 1993 and to declare May 3rd World Press Freedom Day. I continue to search for the names of the journalists who crafted this historic document. As soon as I have all the names we will publish them on The Journalist, the multi-media website (www.thejournalist.org.za) linking all journalism and communication studies programmes in South Africa. We plan to relaunch this site as The African Journalist in 2020 creating a platform that will be our own. This will extend the existing platform throughout the continent and allow us to tell our stories on our own terms.

A close study of the Windhoek Declaration shows that our continent has yet to make more progress to live up to the expectations it outlines. It speaks of an independent press free from economic and political control, an end to monopolies of any kind and the proliferation of voices reflecting 'the widest possible range of opinion within the community.'

No one can argue that there has been no progress on the continent and in South Africa where more and more people are free to speak up and express their divergent opinions. Much more has to be done and journalists will have to give of their time to support efforts not to roll back the present victories. Decline comes easily if there is no vigilance as we South Africans have painfully learnt recently.

A shortcoming of the Index is that it does not consider the threat to freedom of expression darting through cyberspace. Hackers of all kinds daily make efforts to bring down news sites across the world. Some do it for pleasure. Others do it for political reasons. This is unchartered territory and will require careful study.

My personal website, www.zubeidajaffer.co.za has been hacked twice and shut down in the past three years. The first time the site was shut down it carried a video clip of a Turkish editor in jail and the speculation is that this attracted the hacker. We have no idea why it was shut down a second time.

This past month in April 2019, I have experienced over 1000 attempted hacks. The top three countries that these attacks came from were the Russian Federation, the Ukraine and Turkey. Following on these three are China, Kazakhstan and the USA.

My website host, Asihara Online, has done a great job in fortifying my site. Cyber attacks like these are much more difficult to figure out. A full investigation would require massive resources. As time goes by, experience will teach my small team to survive better in this hostile space.

Unlike Namibia that has risen three places on the index from 26 to 23, South Africa has dropped three places from 28 to 31. According to the Index, an opposition leader's abusive language and hate speech directed at journalists contributed to this score. Once election day on 8 May passes by and a president and new cabinet is installed for the next five years, there will an opportunity to lower the temperatures and insist on a greater civility in public life. If this is done, World Press Freedom Day 2020 may give us cause to celebrate. Just imagine that!

Zubeida Jaffer is a veteran journalist, author and activist. This article is the text of a talk first published on The Journalist. It is the first of a new series called TJ Talks to be launched soon.

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