Activists put mainstream media under the spotlight

| Joshua Maserow
Portia Serote (far right) with Vuyiseka Dubula, Rapula Moatshe and Moshoeshoe Monare (from right to left). Photo by Palwa Hlubi.

On 24 June, Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa, in conjunction with the Mail & Guardian and SECTION27, hosted a breakfast seminar in Johannesburg on journalism and social justice in the country’s mainstream media.

Activists urged the media to devote more attention to social justice issues and to provide thorough reporting based on knowledge of legal and policy frameworks. Members of the media replied that newsrooms are facing crippling financial challenges.

The event was organised on behalf of the Eugene Saldanha Memorial Fund managed by CAF Southern Africa. The fund provides support for the expansion and improvement of media coverage on social injustices in South African communities and fellowships to young and promising journalists reporting on social justice issues.

Saldanha, previously a journalist and subsequently a founding director of CAF Southern Africa, advocated tirelessly for parliamentary reforms which would enable civil society to perform its social and political mandate. He saw the media as a vital branch of civil society to expose and censure social injustice. The fund and fellowship aim to “perpetuate his ideas and ideals”, said Alan Wentzel, the chairman of the Eugene Saldanha Memorial Fund governing committee.

Views from the Mail & Guardian

Angela Quintal, editor of the Mail & Guardian, said the fellowship had a positive influence on their newsroom. She remarked, however, that today is “not the heyday of South African journalism”.

Despite having talented journalists, “newsrooms are under the whip, and South African journalism is suffering a financial squeeze”.

Quintal noted the industry needs to look to less orthodox funding models which encourage rather than incapacitate incisive reporting on the issues.

“Too often we forget that it’s people who matter,” she said. “The media often slips into formulaic reporting. It doesn’t always go behind the story and dig as deep as it should.”

According to Quintal, partnerships such as the one existing between CAF Southern Africa and the Mail & Guardian, signal promise for the sustainability of high quality social justice coverage, so long as a desire to dictate from funders does not impugn editorial integrity.

“CAF Southern Africa is amazing in this respect,” she said.

“The media needs to look at issues that don’t necessarily sell newspapers”

Mark Heywood of SECTION27 said that “the protection and promotion of the trade of journalism is a social justice issue”.

Contrary to the recent election slogan of the re-elected ANC, “the story of the new South Africa is about social injustice”, said Heywood. These injustices stretch from a dysfunctional public health system to dangerous levels of poverty and unemployment and an ailing public education system which offers little support to the youth of this country.

He said that the issues are so large and omnipresent that being an activist in South Africa is often akin to being a “hamster in a cage”, getting nowhere fast.

“The media needs to look at issues that don’t necessarily sell newspapers,” he said.

“It is so important for the victims of social injustice,” he said. “It is a vindication of the self and struggles of disaffected communities.”

Heywood said that he wished SECTION27 had its own newsroom. In the process of doing its work on Health, HIV, Education and the right to food, activists uncovered “numerous stories which because of an inability to get them into the public domain, don’t get the political attention they demand and require”.

“Issues of corruption start in the tributaries of places like Pretoria, but once they get to places like Limpopo they become a floodplain which have [punitive] consequences for people’s lives,” he said.

“Partnerships between social justice campaigns, social justice legal work and social justice journalism are about getting to the truth,” he said. “They are about overcoming denialism about the consequences of poor health care, poor education and government corruption which infects the already open wounds of South African society.”

“The tragic irony is that we have a government promising racial equality yet is not willing to dispense resources which guarantee this. Social injustice is a very big story,” he concluded.

Media watchdog gives perspective

The seminar programme then deviated from its scheduled path to accommodate the insights of William Bird, director at Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), a media watchdog organisation which supports and promotes journalism that tackles human rights issues.

Bird reported on MMA’s findings about media coverage patterns of the recently concluded national elections. According to his report, the election issues that garnered the most attention by the media were party campaigning, party politics, election logistics, election results and corruption.

Key issues like voter education, crime, development, service delivery, labour, land and poverty received relatively little focus.

Bird said the easy option would be to place wholesale blame on the media for this distorted coverage, but doing so would neglect the fact that the electioneering discourse of the three parties which won the majority of the national vote – the ANC, the DA and the EFF – did not touch on these issues either.

Bird concluded that while the mainstream media does cover social justice issues, many journalists do not make the connection between the topics covered and their social impact obvious enough.

The exchange

The centrepiece of the seminar was a discussion between gender and HIV activists, Vuyiseka Dubula and Portia Serote, of Sonke Gender Justice and TAC respectively, and Moshoeshoe Monare, the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian, and Rapula Moatshe, the current Eugene Saldanha fellow.

Serote beseeched journalists not to echo politicians who deliver ambiguous stories to the South African people. “Politicians say things they don’t mean,” she said.

“When we call the media, you are not there,” she said.

Serote conceded that “the mainstream media is doing something but not enough”. She used the recently publicised issue of the rollout of HPV vaccinations to school girls to substantiate her claim. The mainstream media had not reported on this health service implementation failure. It was full of praise for this initiative of Aaron Motsoaledi (current Minister of Health) but neglected to follow up on the story by investigating the scope and success of the implementation of the vaccine.

“It is not being implemented in the right way,” she said. “What about children in rural areas and informal settlements who aren’t in school? I expected the media to go to these areas where children are not attending schools … The mainstream media say the Minister is doing good work!”

Dubula said that journalists were afraid to write informatively and critically about gender based violence.

“How many more women should we see dying at the hands of their own parents?” she asked.

The media’s apparent lack of interest in the travails of ordinary people was omitting many injustices from the public record and from deserved public outcry.

Instead, the media was fixated on one gender based injustice, the Oscar Pistorius trial, at the expense of many other narratives which should be voiced and confronted. For instance, the killing of a young gay man in Ceres went unnoticed by the mainstream media.

Dubula went on to question why more reporting on discrepancies between law and policy, and the situations of people on the ground, is not more forthcoming from the mainstream media.

Monare acknowledged the need for mainstream media to provide more comprehensive coverage, but said budget cuts limited coverage of these kinds of issues.

Monare wondered whether citizen journalism could fill in where the mainstream media was struggling.

Dubula said, “You [the mainstream media] are the problem sometimes. What about the people at ground level? Everything is about what’s happening on state level.”

Monare reiterated that the media urgently needs ways of raising capital that are not overly reliant on advertising. If this does not happen, published content will remain shaped by class bias.

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