Call for the protection of journalists

Friday, November 10, 2023

While South Africa’s constitution supports and promotes media freedom, practitioners in the sector have called for the protection of journalists ahead of next year’s general elections.

“The 2021 elections were unsettling due to the danger that was faced by journalists. Some were kicked out of areas that they were working in and others were subjected to humiliation and threatened with violence while they were doing their jobs,” South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) Acting Gauteng Regional Convenor Hopewell Radebe said on Thursday.

He was addressing a virtual panel discussion on Violence against Journalists and the Integrity of Elections that was hosted by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).

“Sometimes the danger is also from political parties. They also start to point fingers at journalists for doing their jobs because the media is able to give a platform to the public to air their views and criticise the parties,” Radebe said.

He noted a growing trend of criminals who victimise the media while on the field and rob them of their tools of trade such as cellphones and cameras.

Former Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO Prof Guy Berger said: “Increasingly we are seeing the abuse, attacks and ganging up on journalists on social media. Of course, journalists should be criticised but there is a difference between criticism and intimidation or threatening death or harming people and their families.

“It is very important that GCIS; the government must call out against incidents when there are attacks on journalists. For example when threatening WhatsApps are sent to editors with a subtle death threat or when a politician releases the private details, like a phone number, of a journalist.

"In terms of preventing the attacks, the GCIS is doing this by hosting this webinar. It is a contribution to the public climate that says it is not acceptable to have criminal attacks on journalists.”

He said the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists emphasised the protection of journalists and the prosecution of those who attack journalists.

The Plan of Action aims to create a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers, both in conflict and non-conflict situations, with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide.

“We know we have a problem of assassination in South Africa, intimidation and gangsterism. Government should take a stand and say to society, this is not acceptable or there will be consequences, you will be prosecuted. This is very important for preventing attacks, if you do not address the attacks you are encouraging them and we know that journalists who are killed, it starts with online threats.

“The people who are doing this are not hidden. They often are doing this publicly. They can be tracked down and brought to account. Security forces also need to find a way to work with journalists instead of stopping them from doing their jobs,” Berger said.

IEC collaborates with media

During previous elections, SANEF teamed up with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) to train journalists on understanding the environment that they are operating in and to understand the rules and regulations of the elections.

“This year, we have been to five provinces with the IEC training journalists on rules and regulations and also to understand the impact of these changes in the elections and how this will impact their communities.

“We will also be working with the police to identify hotspot and areas where there are tensions during the elections. Journalists have to be prepared differently and be alerted on what to expect in areas that are dangerous,” Radebe said.

He warned of a growing trend by members of the public not wanting to give space to journalists to do their job.

“… Particularly when they are campaigning for certain parties and they don’t want to hear a journalist being fair, accurate and being balanced in their reporting to prospective voters so they can make an informed decision,” Radebe said. –