SLICE: World Press Freedom Day goes green 

To commemorate the necessity of a free press while tackling the  climate crisis, this year UNESCO looks to greener pastures for environmental journalism 

The 31st World Freedom Day, which highlights the importance of the press and journalism around the world focused on ‘A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the face of the environmental crisis’ which aims to give journalists liberties when reporting on climate change issues. 

World Press Freedom Day takes place annually on May 3 – and it sheds light on the struggles and impact of the press in tackling issues and raising awareness. As journalism works to reflects what is happening in society, this year’s theme is significant as the climate crisis has had negative impacts on the world and its ecosystems. The recent floods in Dubai and the ongoing heatwaves in Asia are just a few examples of the world’s spiraling weather patterns. 

Journalists have a seemingly crucial role to play in informing the public about climate change, and its effects as they are responsible for sharing climate news. Along with this responsibility, journalists are also obligated to report in the public’s interest, and the climate crisis falls well within the range of public interest reporting. And currently, there seems to be some challenges.  

The United Nations mentioned on their website that the significance of environmental reporting lies in its ability to shape democratic societies by raising awareness of the increasing environmental crisis and its consequences. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO mentioned in a statement on May 3, that “without reliable scientific information about the ongoing environmental crisis, we can never hope to overcome it… On World Press Freedom Day, we must reaffirm our commitment to defending freedom of expression and protecting journalists worldwide.” 

As a result, some news organisations across the world have increased their coverage of global warming and the climate crisis. A clear indicator comes from the reporting of the flooding in Dubai, which climate scientists have stated could be related to the world’s skyrocketing temperatures, and many mainstream media outlets have mentioned this in their coverage, with publications like CNN highlighting climate scientists’ views that global warming is causing these issues. This highlights how publications have made strides to improve climate related coverage and have invested resources in doing so. 

Reggy Moalusi the executive director of the South African National Editors Forum has mentioned that one challenge that journalists face in reporting on climate related news is a lack of resources. This is because newsroom sizes are decreasing, and journalists are having to cover more topics themselves. This means that journalists cannot dedicate time solely to climate reporting as they must have their hands in every jar at once, unlike 30 years ago. “Any kind of specialist reporting has gone down,” he mentioned.  

Established journalist and editor, Candice Bailey, told Wits Vuvuzela that South Africa has a lean environmental journalism landscape, meaning that this field in South African journalism is established, but can be built upon. She mentioned that “the focus on climate change improved the vision of environmental journalism.” Which indicates that the increasing relevance of climate issues may bolster the environmental journalism space in the country. 

This year’s World Press Day aimed to look at these issues between the press and the environment and find innovative and engaging solutions for them. UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day conference will be held in Chile on May 2-4  2024. 

Joburg is sizzling hot!

Southern Africa has been plagued by heatwave after heatwave, and the temperature is still on the rise.

Climate change has been an issue many people sweep under the rug, but this past Summer, everyone felt its effects in the scorching temperatures that left no reprieve. With the degrees consistently sitting in the high 30s, Johannesburg was at risk of a health and ecological disaster.

Professor Jennifer Fitchett was the speaker at the first-quarter session of the Pro Vice-Chancellor Seminar Series for climate, sustainability and inequality. She is a professor of physical geography at Wits University and centred her presentation around the effects of a 1.1-degree Celsius warmer climate.

Joburg temperatures are off the charts and continue to rise, along with the globe’s average. GIF: Victoria Hill

In fact, Fitchett says Johannesburg is 1.5-degree Celsius warmer, above the global average.

The seminar aimed to indicate how humans are unable to tangibly feel this gradual temperature rise of the planet, with most saying the difference seems negligible to note.

However, other species which use season changes as their thermometer most definitely feel this increase; so, when humans eventually feel the temperature rise, these species would feel the effects even more intensely.

Fitchett explains how bees are coming to pollinate flowers before they have bloomed; caterpillars are hatching before leaves are ready for them; Jacaranda trees are flowering earlier than usual; land-based Addo elephants are unable to migrate to areas necessary for survival; waterholes dry up and land-mammals cannot survive; and the woolly-mammoth was forced to eat a diet of grass which led to their extinction.

Ecologies are experiencing an imbalance of nature, with co-dependent species having mismatched timelines which are fatal. Slowly, they have evolved to align with each other once again, but the temperature is still rising faster than the rate of evolution.

Fitchett says the solution to climate change lies within an interdisciplinary approach. She explained social scientists should note the impact of higher temperatures — no matter whether they are due to global warming or the climate-phenomenon of an El Niño year — because they can easily cause a health disaster in vulnerable South African communities.

She also said environmental students should have a compulsory climate course in their first year to create awareness of this growing issue. Journalists also need to fact-check their climate articles to ensure they are not over-dramatising the issue for effect which leads to the public losing trust in climate specialists.

Joburg gave a new meaning to the idealised Sunny South Africa, and was sizzling, stifling, and scorching hot this summer season. If humans could feel this temperature increase, other plants, animals, vegetation, or species would have felt it, and been affected by it, even more. 

FEATURED IMAGE: A setting sun seen over the skyline of Johannesburg, burning in colours of red, orange, and yellow. Photo: Victoria Hill

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Profile: Like the climate, Dr. Enoch Sithole is one degree hotter

‘When I get into something, I don’t let it go, regardless of how difficult it is,’ says the newly minted PhD holder.  

Lecturer at the Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ), Dr. Enoch Sithole recently obtained his PhD on his extensive research into media coverage of climate change in South Africa.  

Sithole was born in the old mining town of Barberton in Mpumalanga, in 1965 to a Swazi mother and a Tsonga father. He left Barberton at the age of 12 and went to Mozambique with his dad, spending nine years in the country. Sithole attributes the move to his multilingualism, he is proficient in Tsonga, Swati, English and Portuguese. 

He returned to the country in 1983 and followed his father’s footsteps by working at the same mine in Baberton. “My interest in journalism came under anti-apartheid activism when I joined a workers’ union and became a heavy consumer of news,” shared Sithole.  Consequently, he was recruited at an anti-apartheid newspaper in 1988 called New Nation, he joined permanently as a reporter after three months of training. 

“When I was thinking about my PhD, I tried to find something that would be unique. I could have done my PhD on a purely journalism subject because that is my background.” Sithole decided to research on climate change for his doctorate, noting that the media only covers the topic during conferences or when there are disastrous events. 

His research emphasized that climate change should not be looked at as only existing in the physical science space because solutions to the global issue are also found in social spaces. “If we’re going to involve everybody in fighting climate change we need to communicate. I want to take a subject such as climate change to the masses through journalism and other communication methods,” said Sithole. 

The father of two children and three grandchildren graduated with honours in 2017, a master’s in 2018 and recently a doctorate on April 24, 2023, whilst working as a lecturer at the WCJ. Sithole said the field of journalism is demanding especially when one is trying to complete their studies while working. “One needs to plan their life accordingly, even your family will understand that it’s work, it’s not something you can avoid,” said Sithole. 

Sithole is currently working on a proposal to “determine empirically, not speculatively” why media rarely covers climate change and why people find climate change an elusive subject. This is in addition to a report he wrote for Fojo Media Institute about the inadequacy of climate change reportage in South Africa between 2021 and 2022.  

Programme coordinator at Fojo Media Institute, Jean Mujati described Sithole as a very humble and professional person. She further mentioned that he was recommended by the former WCJ director Professor Franz Kruger. “We [the institute] needed an expert who understood the South African media landscape, [which is] something that we found in Dr Sithole,” Mujati said.  

While Kruger said he worked with Sithole at New Nation in the 1980s. “I appreciate Enoch for his experience in the media, and his insightful way of thinking about issues in journalism. His focus on climate change reporting is timely, and I am very happy that he completed his PhD in the area.”  

“I have my PhD, now it’s a matter of making it work” said Sithole. He further noted that he would love to continue teaching journalism and increasingly combine it with climate change.  

His final words were, “One thing I would like people to know about me is that I tend to commit to what I want to do, I grab hard. When I get into something, I don’t let it go, regardless of how difficult it is”. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Dr. Enoch Sithole posiing for a picture at his office at the Wits Centre for Journalism. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov

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Accountants ditch number crunching for paddles  

A trip to the Amazon has proved that the trajectory of climate change may lie in the hands of chartered accountants’ reporting of businesses. 

David Attenborough and Bear Grylls had nothing on a pair of Wits accountancy professors as they took to the Rio Madeira, the Amazon’s largest and most important tributary on a month-long trek.   

Wits University’s accountancy professors Kurt Sartorius (73) and Wayne van Zijl (33), along with Sartorius’s son, Benn Sartorius (44), headed for Brazil on July 1, 2022 and finished with great effort by July 26, touching back down on South African soil on July 29. The aim of their 1 100km canoe journey was to raise awareness about the business relevance of climate change among corporates and raise funding for high impact research and reforestation initiatives. 

“As accountants, we are the storytellers of a business performance and position,” said Van Zijl. Usually, businesses that are not environmentally friendly have large profit margins, compared to those who are more environmentally conscious, he added. This is because of the additional costs.  

If these costs are not reported, society judges only by the profit. This disincentivises environmentally sustainable behavior if companies cannot report holistically. Accountants can prevent climate change by developing holistic reporting technology which would single out environmentally friendly companies. Raising funding for this development was one of the aims of the trip.   

The senior Sartorius’s journey was a 50-year reunion with Rio Madeira, and a way to highlight the changes that occurred over half a century, as he re-paddled his 1972 route. Benn Sartorius said this is not their first adventure, “he and I have done many other trips together to Peru and elsewhere [but this one] was special.” Van Zijl saw it as an opportunity to finally join his revered lecturer from his university days on one of his “infamous professor Kurt Indiana Jones Sartorius” excursions. 

Wits professors Kurt Sartorius and Wayne van Zijl together with Benn Sartorius took a 1 100km trip down the Rio Madeira to try bring awareness and raise funds for climate change initiatives. Photo: Wayne van Zijl

The experience was indeed rewarding but also extremely “unpleasant” said Van Zijl. The younger Sartorius called the trip “brutal”. The team paddled through a tough terrain of low currents and extremely hot days, clocking between 50km to 60km daily through the two-kilometer-wide river.  

When they were not on the water, they were on the muddy and insect infested land, where camp was set up by 6pm to avoid being attacked by mosquitos. Massive rainstorms, language barriers and scary characters along the river were all in a day’s work for this crew. 

The trip was a collaborative initiative funded by Wits and the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants and formed part of  Wits’s centenary campaign.  

Professor Nirupa Padia, head of the school of accountancy told Wits Vuvuzela that, ”[The school] is extremely proud of this accomplishment by [its professors]. It is unheard of for accountants to be so adventurous and to go to this extent to make a difference on climate change and sustainability. It is inspiring for the staff and students to know that accountants too, can help save the planet.”  

FEATURED IMAGE: Father and son have taken many trips together but this one was special. Van Zijl was ”amazed at the relationship”. Photos: Wayne van Zijl

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