Menell13: Media freedom unpacked

[Photographs by Nokuthula Manyathi]

Some of the most influential South African journalists gathered at the Sol Kerzner auditorium at the University of Johannesburg on Saturday, to discuss various topics under the media freedom umbrella. The topics ranged from government propaganda to secrecy laws and beyond.

Inside the belly of the beast

Keynote speaker and host of Faultlines on Al Jazeera, Josh Rushing spoke candidly about being a marine and a journalist.

“I was inside Al Jazeera, inside the military and inside the Bush administration – I had a unique vantage point,” said Rushing.

In 2003, Rushing was with Central Command and tasked with speaking to the media about the invasion in Iraq. A controversial documentary, Control Room, showed Rushing speaking about the invasion. The Pentagon muzzled his attempts to speak about the documentary, so he resigned after 14 years of service.

It was at this point that Rushing helped to start up Al Jazeera English. Rushing explained that Al Jazeera had always been vilified as being the mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda and he resigned so he could speak about what it wasn’t.

Power corrupts

Rushing said that the Obama administration is possibly the least transparent and most aggressive towards the media. “When he (Obama) was a senator, he championed media freedom,” lamented Rushing.

He explained that the U.S Espionage Act of 1917 has been used seven times under Obama’s watch. Rushing said that even though President Obama may have good intentions: “All power leads to abuse at some point.”

He touched on data mining and how companies like Apple and Google are colluding with the current administration to store people’s data.

Secrecy laws back home

A panel consisting of Nic Dawes, William Bird and Ylva Rodney-Gumede spoke about secrecy laws and how they would possibly affect journalism in South Africa. [pullquote]“People can classify information that should not be classified in the first place”[/pullquote]

Dawes explained that the amendments that had been to the Protection of State Information Bill since its inception were great, but didn’t cure the concerns he had with the bill. But was happy that: “We’ve made freedom of information a broad public debate,” he said.

Bird was less optimistic and bluntly said the bill as it stood was “evil, old apartheid stuff”. He said the fact that people’s travel schedules could be classified was a problem, when someone like President Obama’s schedule is available online for the world to see.

“People can classify information that should not be classified in the first place,” bemoaned Bird.

Mzilikazi wa Afrika said that the bill would be problematic for journalists. He highlighted the contradictory message being sent by government.

“On one hand they have hotlines for people to call in and report corruption and other such crimes and on the other they are saying if you blow the whistle, we will send you to jail,” he said.

Media attorney and moderator of the panel, Dario Milo jokingly said he calls it the “some Secrecy Bill”, after the amendments that have been made. To which Rodney-Gumede replied, “great the SS Bill”.

Public Protector

“Journalism allows people to have oversight over the people they have entrusted with power,” said public protector, advocate Thuli Mandonsela.

She also highlighted the parallels between her office and investigative journalism, namely the investigative aspect and the role they play in strengthening our democracy.

The role of investigative journalism

Adriaan Basson, deputy editor of the City Press said that the success of investigative journalism cannot be measured against prosecutions. “What happens after investigations is not our job,” said Basson.

He went on to list three ways in which investigative journalism could be improved. Firstly, the stories of the victims of corruption need to be told. The impact of corruption needs to be highlighted to empower people. “It’s not about us, it’s about them,” said Basson.

Secondly journalists need to experiment with new technologies and data journalism to make their stories appeal to people. Lastly, “Get off twitter and get into the Corolla,” said Basson.

Mzilikazi wa Afrika of the Sunday Times agreed with Basson and explained how he had found two of his award winning stories by way of not sitting behind his desk waiting for news.

Piet Rampedi of The Star said that threats and intimidation from the top are the price you pay “if you dare to do investigative journalism”.

Investigative journalism isn’t a special category, “just great journalism” expressed an audience member.

Dodge propaganda and spin

Justice Malala, host of The Justice Factor on eNCA spoke about the media “falling” for government propaganda and government spin doctors. [pullquote align=”right”] “For four years we ran after the theatrics of politics and ignored the important things,”[/pullquote]

Malala spoke out against the way the media is easily distracted and gave the example of Julius Malema. “For four years we ran after the theatrics of politics and ignored the important things,” he said.

He expressed the need for journalists and the media to start talking about institutions as opposed to speaking about isolated incidents, incidents that people often forget about. “We forget sometimes, I also forget and go with the noise,” added Malala.

Senior researcher at Wits Journalism and panelist, Glenda Daniels disagreed with Malala and said that the media doesn’t just fall for spin and that there is a lot of continuity in media stories, giving the example of the Gupta scandal.