South Africa: Discredited, Threatened, Attacked - Challenges of Covering South Africa's Election in the Digital Age

press release

New York — In the lead up to South Africa's elections in May, the Electoral Commission of South Africa accredited CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal as an international observer, monitoring press freedom. Quintal found that unlike 1994-when she covered the violence of the country's first democratic elections-journalists in 2019 cited online harassment and threats as the biggest challenge to their work.

Twenty-five years ago, I quit my first job as a reporter at a Johannesburg daily newspaper because I refused to witness South Africa's first democratic election from behind a desk. It was March 28, 1994 and my editor had stopped me from covering the Shell House massacre, where African National Congress security guards opened fire on members of the rival Inkatha Freedom Party, in a day of violence around Johannesburg that killed over 50 people. It was almost a month before South Africa's first all-race elections and the country was on a knife-edge.

A freelancer on assignment for The Associated Press, Abdul Shariff, had already been killed in connection to his work that year. The Star's chief photographer, Ken Oosterbroek, would also be killed in crossfire days before the election. My editor, a curmudgeon, insisted it was too dangerous for a female journalist and noted we had no "riot" cover. I suspected I would be stuck in the newsroom on election day, so I quit and joined a news agency that did not believe women journalists should be barred from covering "dangerous" assignments.

A quarter of a century later, I returned to Johannesburg for the country's sixth democratic election, this time as an "international observer" accredited by the Electoral Commission of South Africa. I focused on the press freedom environment and whether politicians were adhering to the electoral code of conduct in their interactions with journalists, to ensure free and fair elections.

Unlike the 1990s, which brought a clear risk of physical violence, during this election journalists had to contend with online harassment, cyber-bullying, toxic social media-and fear and uncertainty over whether the digital threats could become physical attacks. As is so often the case in South Africa, it was a court that would ultimately provide journalists with a shot at redress.

Ranjeni Munusamy, an associate editor at Tiso-Blackstar, publisher of the Sunday Times, Sowetan and Business Day, who covered the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s, told me, "Some of the people making the threats now don't know what it's like to live in a war zone and did not witness people being killed because some or other politician declared them as an enemy. They use inflammatory language to fire up their constituencies, but seem not to realize that words have direct consequences."

Munusamy is one of five journalists who deposed to an affidavit in a case that the South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) launched late last year against the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters. It followed a barrage of threats against journalists from the party's leaders and supporters. SANEF initially sought a meeting with the EFF, but its leaders responded, saying their schedule was "very tight and fully booked." SANEF then turned to the Equality Court to ban the party and its leader Julius Malema from "using any platform, including social media, to intimidate, harass, threaten or assault journalists."

Munusmay's affidavit and those of other journalists detailed the threats they'd received and how they were affected, personally and professionally.

SOURCE Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

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