On October 19, 1977, scores of journalists and black consciousness leaders were detained and banned by the apartheid regime in an attempt to silence journalists who were exposing atrocities committed by apartheid’s security apparatus. 

As we commemorate the 45th anniversary of Black Wednesday, the threats to media freedom, independence and diversity today are different from 1977, but they are real.

Recently, News24 legal journalist Karyn Maughan appeared in the dock of the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Monday, 10 October for requesting information already in the public domain about former president Jacob Zuma’s health. 

This is an obvious attempt at chilling the media’s right to information particularly when it comes to those who are of public interest. 

In South Africa, Black Wednesday is commemorated on October 19 and is a reminder that the media freedom we revere was hard won. It also reminds us to remain vigilant.

“October 19 becomes important not only to remember what happened there but to remind us of what could still happen because power always wants to limit the extent of freedom. So we must always stay at the barricades,” said Tsedu.

“The struggle is to always stay at the barricades of press freedom and defend it from whatever order impunity comes,” he added.

South Africa ranks fairly high on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index at 35 out of 180. A Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report on the status of press freedom highlights that “press freedom is guaranteed but fragile.”

South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) press freedom chair Mary Papayya said the South African media climate is diverse. She added that the media is underpinned by the country’s constitution shaped by events such as Black Wednesday and the individuals we pay homage to on this day. 

“What we have today is a constitution that protects media freedom, freedom of expression and allows for journalists to do their jobs in an environment that must always be free and protects the rights of journalists and also used to challenge the attacks against press freedom,” said Papayya. 

Tsedu said during Apartheid, a journalist could end up in a torture chamber for stories that pushed the boundaries. 

“Today, there are no legislative restrictions on what can be published, for ethical and moral considerations that are universal. But maybe freedom itself, it’s never won to a point where you can say we are done and dusted and this is where we are,’ he said.

Challenges to Press freedom today 

Commemorating Black Wednesday helps escalate media freedom awareness by highlighting contemporary challenges to press freedom. 

National Press Council chairperson Jos Charle highlighted that the media industry is in decline and that threatens media independence. 

“Journalists are not being paid their worth and what that does is that it makes the profession not attractive for new talent. This has affected newsrooms being manned by not well-trained journalists and this has fed into training programmes as well,” he said. 

Journalists, especially women, are increasingly becoming prime targets of online abuse. In South Africa, journalist Pauli van Wyk was frequently threatened and abused over her reporting of disgraced politicians and corruption schemes by political leaders.

Similarly,  broadcast journalist Kareema Brown had her contact details shared online by political party leader Julius Malema which opened doors for extreme online abuse by party members.

“Cyberbullying and trolling is a big deal, issues of disinformation and illegal surveillance all cause harm to journalists and journalism,” she said.

While journalists enjoy a less restricting media atmosphere in comparison to 1977, Charle said it is still worrying that journalists today are being threatened, undermined and even attacked online for speaking truth to power 

“What that immediately does is to make journalists think twice when reporting,” he said.

Media safeguarding its freedom

Tsedu said it is important that we frame the definition of press freedom around how journalism empowers communities and citizens. Then, the importance of journalism would be highlighted.

“People think media freedom is the right of journalists to write stories but it isn’t, it is the right of citizens to have information that is verified, newsworthy and helps them make decisions from an informed position,” Tsedu said. 

“If we accept that as the definition of press freedom it becomes clear that it becomes perpetually important,” he added.