Ladies and gentlemen,
Tonight I’m gonna tell you a story of a young lady who took a tram one morning in December 1957 to start her very first job as a cub reporter at the Golden City Post.
A few years later she joined Drum magazine where in her own words she found her wings.
She said: “Being a Drum journalist opened up my previously sheltered world, one where my self confidence could grow and I got to meet an assortment of weird and wonderful people”.
Through her reporting, she became an activist against apartheid and fought for social and political inclusion and justice. It was therefore inevitable that she would find herself covering a lot of stories to do with couples who found themselves in trouble with the law under the ridiculous Immorality Act. The law prohibited relationships between white and persons of other races.
And so it happened that in 1966 she found herself in a rather precarious position where she and the legendary Alf Khumalo plotted and executed an escape of a man who was arrested and under police guard at a hospital in Pretoria.
The man who was classified as coloured had committed the crime of marrying an Afrikaaner woman.
To cut a long story short, the man called Robert and Marthie were moved to a safe house in Jhb. Then in the dead of night, the journalist, a driver called James Bond and the couple made the 350km trek to Barbeton. Upon arrival at a particular house, they were met by a woman who was expecting the couple. After a few pleasantries the journalist and driver left and two weeks later, she received a telegram from Mbabane Swaziland. It had only two words: “ Operation Successful”. That way she knew that the couple’s plan to cross into Swaziland without detection from the Apartheid – had been a success.
You may be wondering as to why I am telling you this particular story. I will come back to this point later. But the journalist in question was one Juby Mayet, who died peacefully in 2019 – at the age of 82. But before she died she had shared her life story which is chronicled in the book: “Freedom Writer: My Life and Times”.
Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I’m proud that we will get to present the Juby Mayet Rising Star of the Year Award to a deserving young journalist. After all, Juby was only 19 when she joined the Golden City Post.
Through her voice and her pen she contributed to journalism in this country but also used her position in society to bring about change. That’s why it was easy for us to name this category after her.
Now let me go back to the story of the couple who needed to cross to Swaziland – to escape prosecution. It is a story that tells the involvement of the community in the struggle against apartheid. Communities viewed journalists as allies. Juby Mayet and her generation used their pens to oppose the apartheid regime. While they faced the military might and the brutality of the apartheid forces, Mayet and the journalists of her era had the oppressed majority cheering them on and supporting them.
Times have changed. Communities have turned on journalists and are the first to attack journalists despite them clearly identifying themselves as news reporters.
This is no coincidence and it should be seen as part of the disinformation campaign aimed at chirping at the credibility of journalists and undermining the work that we do.
Our struggle for freedom in South Africa is peppered with anecdotes of how journalists were protected by communities – when pursued by the apartheid forces.
But today journalists find themselves under attack from the very communities whose stories we tell. Conspiracy theorists will attribute this to the deterioration of standards in the media and thus the driver of the animosity towards journalists. The press card and media bib is not enough to protect journalists from attacks. This, to me, is a result of the systematic and deliberate campaign to discredit and undermine journalists.
It is politicians, the corrupt and, the criminal elements who are driving this wedge between communities and the media
In the recent 2023 World Press Freedom Index, the following observation was made: “In 118 countries (two-thirds of the 180 countries evaluated by the Index), most of the Index questionnaire’s respondents reported that political actors in their countries were often or systematically involved in massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns. The difference is being blurred between true and false, real and artificial, facts and artifices, jeopardising the right to information. The unprecedented ability to tamper with content is being used to undermine those who embody quality journalism and weaken journalism itself.”
Tonight, therefore, it is no wonder that this year’s awards take place under the theme: Journalism: In the Face of Public LIE ability. When seeing is believing, when does the ability to lie end, and the liability begin?” Next year we have the nation and provoncial elections. We must expect the situation to get worse. The attacks will grow.
As we edge towards the 2024 provincial and national elections, expect political leaders to target journalists through disinformation campaigns intended to shift the focus away from their shenanigans.
This is exacerbated by the elevated political fever which grips the country ahead of any major election.
As we continue to expose wrongdoing, as journalists we will find ourselves in the crosshairs of politicians. But we should not stand back. This is an important election and it will be hard fought. After all, our democracy turns 30 next year.
We must also understand that Fake news is not just innocuous sharing of false information. It is much more sinister and has the ability to destabilise nations and inflame communities.
That is why the battle against fake news is not just for journalists to fight. Fake news or disinformation undermines democracy. Left unchallenged, these disinformation campaigns become the only public record on an issue.
As SANEF we will continue will continue with our efforts to equip journalists with skills and knowledge of how to navigate these difficult times. We will continue to organise workshops and training for journalists ahead of the elections.
At the AGM we resolved to set up a Legal Fund to help journalists fight against these injustices. We will also fundraise and allocate funds towards this fund. We will also approach media houses with proposals.
We are setting up a legal fund to fight against abuses of power and attempts to silence journalists. Unfortunately the courts are also falling into this trap of seeking to muzzle journalists.
Colleagues, we have a lot of work to do. As we celebrate the brightest and the best among us, let us remember that not everyone is happy with our work.
In line with this year’s theme we should challenge those who disseminate disinformation to take responsibility for the damage they are causing to our profession and our young democracy
I thank you