What Black Wednesday means for media today

On the 41st anniversary of the darkest day for media freedom in South Africa’s history, former press ombud Joe Thloloe gives his diagnosis of the industry’s health.

On 1 February 1977, Joe Thloloe was arrested at the offices of The World newspaper in Johannesburg. He was taken to a police station in Howick, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, and held under section 6 of the Terrorism Act. He was jailed until 1 August the following year, kept in complete isolation from the outside world.

He was not allowed to meet with people other than the police, and he had no access to any publications.

During one of his many interrogations, a security policeman told Thloloe he should cooperate because the world he knew had changed. The policeman told him: “Your Steve Biko is dead. Your Robert Sobukwe is dead. Your Union of Black Journalists does not exist. Your South African Students’ Organisation [Saso] does not exist. Outside, it’s a peaceful world.” Thloloe told him he was lying.

The following day, the policeman brought Thloloe a copy of the Government Gazette, which confirmed the banning of the Black People’s Convention, Saso, the Black Parents Association, the Black Women’s Federation, the Union of Black Journalists, the Medupe Writers Association and others, as well as the closing down of the The World and Weekend World newspapers. When he realised the policeman was telling the truth, Thloloe asked how Biko and Sobukwe died. The policeman laughed in response.

Thloloe learned the gory details of Biko’s death and Sobukwe’s passing only after he was released. He also discovered that more of his colleagues had been detained. The editor of The World, Percy Qoboza, and the deputy editor, Aggrey Klaaste, were among the many who were detained. Thloloe was instrumental in the creation of Post Transvaal as the successor to The World; the Writers Association of South Africa was created to replace the Union of Black Journalists; and the Azanian People’s Organisation was created to replace Black People’s Convention. In Thloloe’s words, “the oppressed had a way of responding to the oppressor”.

In remembrance of 19 October 1977, Black Wednesday, the day 17 organisations were banned by the apartheid state, New Frame sat down with the veteran journalist, former press ombudsman and struggle stalwart to discuss the state of the media industry in South Africa today.

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12 October 2018: Thloloe reflects on his active participation in journalism. He selflessly contributed to the struggle for freedom, which saw him detained and tortured many times from a young age.

NF: As a former journalist, editor and press ombud, how do you feel about the state of the media in South Africa in terms of the accuracy and credibility of news? Do you think our journalists do enough to verify facts before publishing?
 

JT: If you were in the press council or were the ombud, it would be easy to think our journalism was going to the dogs. All the correspondence we get is from people complaining about something in the papers, so, in a way, it is worrying. But when you sit back and put everything into perspective, as the press council, we get 500 complaints a year, and 500 complaints against the millions of words journalists churn out every day is a drop in the ocean. I know one ugly story tarnishes the entire industry, and people don’t even look at the good that journalists are doing. But one mistake is still one mistake too many.

We’re in an era of newsrooms that are understaffed due to cuts, with a notable exodus of skilled and experienced journalists. How can newsrooms clean up their acts to ensure news retains its credibility?

Credibility is the number one thing journalists can sell by making sure their readers, viewers or listeners get information that is accurate, fair and balanced. They can’t sell anything else – not a newspaper, not a website. The more journalists do that, the more people will respect their credibility and the material that comes from their organisation. Mid-level of journalism is suffering – this is where people are losing their jobs. You have more people coming in as juniors, and the people at the top have been there for quite a while. The few people at the top are the ones who are the essential line of defence – junior reporters come in and the seniors check them, but they have a lot of work because the middle level has been cut out, so careless mistakes slip in and they let things through that they shouldn’t. The industry is suffering, but not to the extent that we can say that our journalism is bad. Journalism still contributes to our democracy in a way that was unthought of in previous years. Today, we know Jacob Zuma as the ex-president because of the work journalists have done. We just heard of the VBS Bank revelations because journalists worked so hard. They are exposing things, but the standards of journalism still range from very weak to excellent.

The term fake news has gained currency in recent years. What characterises fake news?

We have always had fake news, but the name changed recently. There was a time it was called propaganda and there was a time it was called something else, but we have always had fake news. If it’s fake news, it’s not news. We always relied on the sophistication of the people consuming news to discern what is true and what is false. They are the ones who bring credibility to any news organisation. When the Nationalist Party ran the government, the SABC provided fake news as a standard, so there is nothing new about fake news.

How can we fight against fake news?

Readers, viewers and listeners must always be on their toes. If they suspect there are any falsehoods in what is published, they should go to the press council, go to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, or go to other ombuds. The more the public stands up and fights what is false, the better for our society. The courts have come down hard on people using cellphones to pass on fake news. There were cases of defamation where people were granted damages because someone wrote false things about them on social media. We deserve the type of news we get, so if you get fake news, it’s because you have allowed it to happen and you haven’t reacted to it – you haven’t reacted to propaganda and you haven’t reacted to lies. We have to be vigilant, react, and make sure the bad apples are weeded out.

How did your generation of journalists and editors ensure the accuracy of news, especially considering it was a time when the media was harassed by the state and communities looked up to you?

When I was a reporter, we had the same standards we have today. We had to make sure our stories were fair, accurate and balanced. It was part of our journalistic ethics. If the police gave journalists an angle to a story that was suspicious, we had to make sure our facts were checked correctly. For example, if you walked out of the newsroom and found three people dead outside your office, there were journalists who would’ve said that three terrorists were killed by security forces. That was the type of journalism practised by certain white journalists and journalists paid by the state to spread propaganda. Then there were journalists who walked out and saw three dead bodies, and said that three freedom fighters were caught in a skirmish with security police. It’s the same story but from different angles. Do you take the side of the oppressed, of being objective, or of the oppressor? That was the distinguishing factor at the time. Our ethics dictated that our stories must be true, objective and factual. When we worked in the streets, we made sure that we were always on the side of the suffering people, so that they would protect us when the police came rushing looking for us.

How did you rectify any slip-ups in news coverage?

Exactly the same way as today – we apologised. Once you discover a mistake, you apologise immediately so that your credibility is not damaged. People will respect you because you accepted your mistake and put things right. 

In our digital age, when news is disseminated vastly and quickly over mobile platforms, how crucial is it to practise traditional modes of fact-checking?
 
Getting things right is the absolute minimum we are required to do as journalists, whatever the platform. It is important to make sure that what is produced is factual, true, fair and accurate.

Some people speak of ‘citizen journalism’, which allows just about anyone with a mobile device to report on events near them as news before professional journalists arrive on the scene. What should editors do to verify facts in those cases?
 
The irony is that we fought so hard for freedom of expression, which means that I, an ordinary citizen, have the right to say whatever I want. It becomes dicey when people use a platform for their own purposes and lie or cry wolf. Ultimately, the person who receives the story has to make sure it’s from a credible source, and an editor should be able to see that the story was corroborated by a number of people. Today, the basic work still needs to be done, because one person might send a defamatory SMS to a journalist who publishes it without checking. The journalist is just as liable for defamation as the person from whom the story originated.

If online journalists get it wrong, should a correction be published as it would in print media? Do the same rules apply to online platforms?

It’s still a fairly grey area. For example, the press council takes complaints against publications that are council members, as well as journalists associated with publications that are members of the council. The Interactive Advertising Bureau South Africa also has a code of conduct for members that publish online. The limiting thing is that it applies to people who are already members of those organisations. If they are not members, the public can go to court, and they have the right to respond.

Are you optimistic about the quality and credibility of news produced in South Africa?

The media are suffering financially, and advertising revenue and circulations have dropped. The industry is in a strange place – it’s in the middle of a revolution. We don’t know how it will pan out, but something serious is happening. In the future, the only thing that will help the media is if it takes the revolution in its stride while ensuring the basics of journalism are also met. That is the only way the media will retain credibility and get to a point where readers respect what is published. For now, I am happy with the quality of journalism in the country. We have seen many exposés because of the work journalists are doing.

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