By Poelo Irene Keta
On 05 May 2022, in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day (03 May), the Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS) hosted a discussion under the theme “Reclaiming African Journalism in the Public Interest”. This discussion also formed part of the School’s 50th Anniversary this year. The panellists offered enlightening insights and solutions to address the current plights of the profession.
The webinar was hosted and facilitated by JMS staff member Taryn Isaacs de Vega. The panel of experts leading this discussion were UNESCO’s Director for Policies and Strategies, Guy Berger, Chairperson of The Africa Editor’s Forum and editor of The African Mirror, Jovial Rantao, News Editor of The Continent, Lydia Namubiro, and Singapore-based journalist and media trainer, Kavita Chandran. Rhodes University also partnered with The Journalist, the Mail & Guardian, and Highway Africa to make this webinar possible.
Namubiro began the presentation by defining some of the integral keywords in investigating how African journalism can be reawakened and reclaimed in the public interest. “Public interest journalism is journalism learnt by doing. You get a sense of it over the years by way of practice; you get a sense of it by occupying space and being invested in a particular community over time. African journalism in the public interest is journalism that is done by African journalists,” she said.
It has also become apparent, Namubiro explained, that the only way for some newsrooms to recover is to receive financial resources. These funds can be used to buy time for journalists to do their journalism differently, allow newsrooms to afford more reporters, and keep senior journalists to train younger journalists in what the public interest is. This funding is needed at a large scale to allow African journalism to continue thriving.
The webinar also took place on the last day of UNESCO’s annual World Press Freedom Day Global Conference, where the theme was “Journalism under digital siege”. The next panellist, Rantao, spoke at length about this theme and the other unexpected factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic affecting journalism and journalists. “The theme for this year’s conference was quite apt because journalism in Africa and throughout the world is under siege from tough pre- and post-COVID-19 economic conditions, which have led to smaller newsrooms, lower circulations, and lower advertising revenue and indeed the death of some publications,” he said. Rantao also highlighted that female journalists are a particularly susceptible group that remains a target.
“Female journalists, in particular, are under siege from those who harass them in cyberspace. They’re exposed to an alarming additional risk that stems from discrimination, sexual harassment and cyber harassment, and even murder,” he said.
As a way forward, he urged African media to look at itself and find solutions to problems and challenges that are uniquely African. “We need to do this for us to be able to own the narrative as we want to, for us to tell the African story as only we can do. And as such, we need to find real solutions for how our media can survive,” he said.
Chandran followed Rantao’s approach with her own, which she called ‘solutions journalism’. Solutions journalism is a solutions-based approach that aims to correct the news fatigue plaguing readers based on the constant flow of negative information by holding problem-solvers accountable for their promises. Chandran offered solutions journalism as a way forward in reclaiming journalism in the public interest by giving readers hope instead of a sense of helplessness. Many readers are tired of seeing negative headlines, which is where Chandran’s solutions journalism comes into effect. The move to this kind of journalism is integral in reclaiming journalism in the public interest. It will restore the lost hunger for news and information deadened by an influx of negative news.
To close off the discussion, Berger, who was joining from Uruguay, where the World Press Freedom Day Global Conference was ending, praised the resilience and innovation that Africans have in the face of conflict and hardship. “What we’ve seen in the past two years is a real roadblock being hit. The first was the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown, and how they hit the sales of newspapers and reduced the advertising market for radio. Overall, less information and public interest news was being supplied to the public,” he said.
The JMS School has dedicated the month of May to interrogate the state of journalism in Africa. Many discussions are yet to be had throughout the year that address how journalists can restore the public trust and how we can recover from the hits that this industry has taken.