July 5, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area

The South African Menell Media Fellows

By Anthea Garman

The South African Menell Media Fellows (a group of about 20 journalists who’ve participated in the programme run at Duke University and funded by the Menell family) held a one-day conference on Sunday in Cape Town to ask the tough question about how journalism in South Africa can face the future with hope and purpose while new legislation threatens freedom of expression and social media is eroding established ways of making (and paying for) news. Anthea Garman (who was one of the first fellows to visit the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke with the SABC’s Angie Kapelianis in 2000) reflects on the day.

There are almost no journalists’ organisations left in this country, a situation which I think is really dire. It means that journalists don’t have forums of solidarity in which to transcend their competitive environments and speak about the issues that concern them all – issues like the Protection of Information Bill, the media appeals tribunal, the Press Freedom Commission, the judicial review of Constitutional Court decisions being called for by Jacob Zuma and the eroding ground on which most mainstream media has operated for years economically. So the day hosted by the Menell Fellows was a really important gathering and the key speakers didn’t disappoint.

James Joseph, a professor of the practice of public policy, director of the Southern African Centre for Leadership and Public Values and a former ambassador to South Africa in the Bill Clinton regime, started off the day with a heartfelt appeal to think urgently about credible and ethical journalism. He was of the opinion that unless journalism stopped “serving elites and attacking elites”, demands for government regulation of journalism could not be avoided. As a fan of civic journalism, Joseph leans heavily on the need for journalists to “produce news citizens need”. Saying that ethics in journalism is “obedience to the unenforceable”, he outlined some points:
• Democracy is a system defined by the people holding the power, but in many countries this has been whittled back to a situation in which the people only have the vote. Journalists have to contribute to the people having a role beyond just voting.
• Characterising political journalism as “reporting yelling diatribes”, he said journalism needed to provide clarity rather than adding to confusion and questioned whether a degree of “civility” wasn’t sorely needed in most public debates.
• He urged journalists to “get at consensus” on important issues and not just to do “bipolar coverage”.
• Journalists should help publics to see elections as “hiring decisions” rather than win-or-lose conflicts.

Prof James Joseph

Joseph asked the journalists if they wanted to do more than report, if they wanted to provide leadership. “Most of the great issues of the day are moral issues,” he said. Leadership required emotional intelligence – self awareness, empathy and social skills; moral intelligence – leaders are custodians of values and not just resources, he said; social intelligence – pluralism is an asset and diversity must be embraced; and spiritual intelligence – journalists should see journalism as something bigger than a job or assignment and respect the humanity of those who lives are examined and whose actions are exposed. Referring to what some commentators have called the “free-floating anxiety” of modern life, Joseph also suggested that journalists should provide hope, which he said “looks at the evidence and sees alternate possibilities”.

In response eNews Africa Editor Chris Maroleng told Joseph how complicated journalism is in South Africa because “those who have seized power regard themselves as having the authority to define journalists as illegitimate because they haven’t been voted into power”. Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail&Guardian, who continues to keep a very watchful eye on the progress of proposed legislation like the Protection of Information Bill (POIB), concurred with Maroleng and said he had been attacked by politicians often with the question “Who voted for the Mail&Guardian?” In his years of political reporting, Dawes said, he has seen Parliament “closing down” and more and more committees operating in secrecy. Dawes, after detailing his understanding of the POIB, said he had two concerns: that good governance relies on openness and transference of information and a law like this would close that down, but also that it would “overlay a layer of fear” across society.

Dawes believes that the core idea of Constitutional democracy is to “harmonise” conscience, civic duty and law, but the ANC’s attitude to the judicial system and to the amendments of many laws are showing that the Constitution is now being seen as an “obstacle”. What had to be made clear and held on to, he said, was the vision of democracy as consisting of a society of “overlapping institutions of accountability for citizen and sovereign to exchange ideas”, and this, he said, “fundamentally licences and legitimises journalism and civic work”. We should not have to trust government, he said, we should be able to “trust a complex architecture of institutions”, for our democracy to flourish. He also made a very strong appeal for those punting freedom of the press and freedom of expression to not divorce “classical rights from social-economic rights”. The Constitution strongly connects “the moral autonomy of humans with right of access to water and housing – these are inseparable”, he said, and to focus only on the former is a “false distinction”. His position is that the campaign against the draconian provisions of the POIB is a “campaign for social justice”.

eNews journalist Nikiwe Bikitsha

The rest of the day consisted of panels involving the Menell Fellows present, other journalists and an appearance by Allister Sparks, who’s working on his sixth book. In a panel focusing on mentoring new journalists eNews’ Nikiwe Bikitsha said the one piece of advice she would freely disseminate would be “learn all you can all the time”. She called for newsrooms to “boost research capacity” and extolled the virtues of “reading original documents” and not just relying on experts to interpret them. She also argued that media houses should abandon the attitude of hiring or promoting “one black at a time, one woman at a time” and “invest far more aggressively” in the future. Marion Edmunds who’s worked in multiple newsrooms, said that to work in South Africa journalists have to be comfortable with the idea that “truth is owned by more than one person and that it is not always the place of journalism to determine the dominant idea of the truth”. Gasant Abarder, Argus editor has started brown bag sessions in his paper to get conversations flowing about how they do their journalism. He’s finding that “talking more” helps to build institutional history. Sparks bemoaned the loss to journalism of 50-year-old reporters. The golden age of his career, he said, was when he stopped being an editor and became a reporter again.
Participants of the Menell Media Fellows colloquium

I found myself on the last panel of the day and was asked to address the challenges journalism faces and the changes it must make, so I summed up the day for myself like this:
• We need quality journalism – new, fresh, challenging. Tell me something I don’t already know, give me a corruption story that is not just like the one I read yesterday.
• We need ethical journalism – not the big stick-type of moralising, but a thoughtful journalism that thinks about purpose and point.
• We need public-minded journalism – how to use what we do to build the people James Joseph talked of, who can hold the democratic power and use it.
• We need civic-minded journalism – to see ourselves as part of society with a social role (as Nic Dawes said, knit that campaign of freedom of expression into one of social justice).
• We need solidarity of journalists – private media and public media, social media and community media – we need to talk about what affects us all and see ourselves as a whole entity.
• We need to be brave – speak up, speak out, do the right thing, regardless of the hostile environment that seeks to undermine journalism – and journalists – by the silencing tactic of calling it illegitimate.

And a final note: who is the “we” I’m thinking of here, particularly as unlike all the Menell fellows who are journalists every day, I’m an educator in an academic environment? Well this would be all of us who have a stake in South African journalism and its future.