“What we have realized in this situation is that evidently the pen is not mightier than the sword,” said South African broadcast journalist, Aldrin Sampear at a night vigil held in Johannesburg.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) confirmed that at least 83 journalists and media workers have been killed, 16 injured and 25 arrested in Gaza in the last three months. However, the government media office in Gaza estimates that the total number exceeds 100.
The CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator, Sherif Mansour said: “The Israeli army has killed more journalists in 10 weeks than any other army or entity has in any single year.” He added that with each journalist’s death, understanding and documenting the conflict becomes increasingly challenging.
Standing in solidarity
South African journalists and media practitioners organized vigils across some of the country’s prominent cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Makhanda. Proceedings started off with a coordinated national moment of silence on the evening of January 28, 2024.
In Johannesburg, the gathering at Mary Fitzgerald Square, saw journalists in all black attire, gather in front of a stage dressed in the placards and printouts which had the images and names of some of those killed in Gaza.
Voice recordings of journalists Samer Zaneen, Youmna El Sayed, Maram Humaid, and Nizar Sadawi were played out loud to a sombre but attentive crowd. They each shared some of the hardships they have encountered during the suspected genocide and thanked the group gathered for their ongoing solidarity.
Using the false reportage of ‘40 beheaded babies’ in Israel as an analogy, Sampear said by simply repeating these and other falsehoods, journalists have become an “unreliable source”. Sampear moderated a brief panel discussion with journalist and political editor, Qaanitah Hunter, photojournalist, Gulshan Khan and student journalist, Palesa Matlala.
“There is an expectation that you should leave a portion of yourself at the door before you even start [reporting] on issues. Thus we [journalists], especially during the ICJ proceedings were accused of not telling the Israeli story,” said Sampear.
Hunter cited the experiences of South African journalists and writers, Percy Qoboza, Ferial Haffajee and Glenda Daniels who had to report under the apartheid regime. “They reported about the apartheid they lived in, and we cannot tell Palestinian journalists to leave their victimhood at the door before they pick up the mic, because they too, are hungry and displaced,” said Hunter.
Khan rejected the idea of objectivity altogether calling it a “myth”, while Matlala noted that while biases are difficult to avoid the core principles of journalism are always present in her journalism.
Attendee, Quntha Ndimande later told Wits Vuvuzela that her presence at the vigil goes beyond supporting journalists; she attended because of her concern for truth and freedom. “This [vigil] serves as a reminder of how lucky we are to have the platform and opportunity to express ourselves and I believe that these values [truth and freedom] are something all South Africans should actively fight for,” said Ndimande.
FEATURED IMAGE: An image of placards and printouts of the names of reporters killed in Gaza. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov
Not even personal phone calls to Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi stopped the screening of the documentary that focuses on the state of India’s democracy under current prime minister.
The screening of India: The Modi Question at Wits on Friday, May 12, was a powerful example of the importance of media freedom and open discussions in exercising democracy.
Difficult conversations about nationalism, police brutality, media freedom and command responsibility – the idea that a commanding officer is responsible for atrocities committed by their subordinates – are very often shied away from in postcolonial contexts.
The Humanities Graduate Centre (HGC) hosted the screening and panel discussion of the two-part documentary about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his relationship with the Muslim minority in the country. It was released by the BBC in January 2023 and subsequently got banned by the Indian government as “anti-Indian propaganda”.
The first part follows Modi’s early political life, extending into his time as chief minister of Gujarat province, when in 2002 deadly violence shook the province, with Muslim populations targeted by extremists following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.
Among many accusations that followed was that direct orders from Modi had allowed for the violence to play out – an accusation that Modi was acquitted of by India’s Supreme Court in 2021.
The second part of the documentary follows Modi’s career after the riots, focusing on his re-election as prime minister of the country in 2019 for a second five-year term. This is when he presided over a controversial policy changing the status of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and the Citizen Act which revoked the citizenship of many Muslim Indians.
The documentary also covers the ever-increasing suppression of media in the country, with Reporters Without Borders stating that press freedom in the country has declined.
Sociology professor Srila Roy and Mellon Chair in Indian Studies, Professor Dilip Menon, made up the panel at the screening, with more than 30 people from diverse backgrounds in the audience. The discussion began by highlighting the fact that students at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university were arrested for hosting a screening not unlike the one that was held at Wits.
The state of India’s democracy came under the spotlight. A group of four individuals in the audience voiced their anger at the BBC during the discussion, labelling the documentary “propaganda” and “hypocritical from colonial Britain” – responses very similar to those made by the Indian government.
Roy rebuked these comments, stating that it was in bad faith to have a debate of “what ifs” when the subject matter was about the loss of human lives during a time of ethnic violence. The real question, she said, was, “Why is there a ban and why are university students being arrested for watching [the documentary]?”
The screening was championed by the director of the HGC, Professor Lorena Núñez Carrasco, following weeks of external pressure from pro-Modi supporters for it not to go ahead. Not even personal phone calls made to Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi stopped the screening.
Menon alluded to the possibility of the pressure stemming from not wanting to ruffle any feathers ahead of the Brics summit being held in Durban later this year. He highlighted the contradiction of India being the world’s largest democracy due to the largest population actively taking part in voting, and yet having the documentary being banned where there “should be free, open discussion”.
The full documentary is no longer available on YouTube, with the site saying this was for copyright reasons. Menon suspects the Indian government could have played a role in its removal.
FEATURED IMAGE: Wits hosted a screening of the documentary, India: The Modi Question, which is banned in India. Graphic: Seth Thorne
The journalists at Wapad, the student paper of North West University’s Potchefstroom campus, said a decision to ban their publication is part of a plan to control media distributed on campus.
On Monday, Pukke’s marketing and communication department told Wapad editor Kevin du Plessis that the paper would not be published due to uncollected advertising fees of almost R80 000.
[pullquote]Banning, part of a plan to control the newspaper’s content to ensure it upholds the university’s reputation.[/pullquote]
The university said neither a printed edition nor an online edition will be allowed to be published for the rest of the year until the money is collected.
However, du Plessis said the banning was part of a plan to control the newspaper’s content to ensure it upholds the university’s reputation.
“This would mean that the newspaper will be managed by the marketing department and that everything will have to be checked by them before being published. The new chief editor they are going to appoint will also be an employee of the marketing department,” du Plessis said.
“We stand for media freedom and actually promote it. It’s up to them to put the funds as soon as possible,” van Zyl told the website.
Promoting critical thinking
Du Plessis said this year has been a “culture shock” for the paper in terms of content. Wapad journalists have tried to write about prominent issues that promote critical thinking and expose injustices within the university including issues of sex, race, discrimination and abuse.[pullquote align=”right”]The blowback to Wapad’s articles have included physical violence.[/pullquote]
Wapad also reveal the harsh treatment of first years by student leaders in Veritas residence. They published images of male students, bent over with their bottoms exposed, badly beaten and bruised to the point of having large, open sores.
The blowback to Wapad’s articles have included physical violence. Last Saturday, du Plessis was assaulted by a student from Veritas men’s residence.[pullquote]”The university only cares about their reputation and tradition”[/pullquote]
The student allegedly hit du Plessis in the face for publishing an article which he claimed was disloyal to Veritas res.
Du Plessis said the university does little to provide the newspaper with feedback on what actions will be taken when the paper reveals misbehaviour.
“The university will never give us a formal press release to tell us what they are going to do about it. They only care about their reputation and tradition,” he said. [pullquote align=”right”]“I will keep fighting this fight because I want the person who takes over from me to be able to continue with what we have achieved and be able to write independently.”[/pullquote]
Du Plessis said leaders in residences have boycotted the paper in the past by telling students not to read it and not allowing it to be delivered.
“I will keep fighting this fight because I want the person who takes over from me to be able to continue with what we have achieved and be able to write independently,” said Du Plessis, who is leaving the paper at the end of the year.
InWapad’s May edition professor Johannes Froneman announced that he will step down from his position of media regulator at the paper. He said he was disappointed with the lack of independence the paper has from the university and that this infringed on their right to freedom of speech.
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.
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”.
“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”.
Investigativejournalism isn’t a special category, “just great journalism” expressed an audience member.
Dodge propaganda and spin
Justice Malala, host of The Justice Factor oneNCA 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.