UJ Commemorate Press Freedom in the Digital Age

By Irshaad Gangat

The University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Humanities commemorated world press freedom day on May 3 via an online discussion with a theme: Press Freedom in the Digital Age: Threats and Opportunities. 

Lumko Mtimde a well-known media activist, former CEO of MDDA and the current advisor to the Minister in the Presidency discussed press freedom in the digital age and responded to fellow panelists about the way forward in our hybrid media environment. 

Mtimde reiterated these words, “President Cyril Ramaphosa in his Monday address today, 03rd May 2021, says if the media is to remain true to its responsibility to support democracy, our journalists must continue to report without fear or favour on other issues of the day.  Their sustained coverage must include gender-based violence, crime in our communities, and social ills like substance abuse. Our media should provide accurate and impartial information, enabling the public to make informed decisions, to access opportunities and to improve their lives. They should continue to produce journalism that goes beyond the headlines and front pages, and that contributes to human development.”

The discussion also highlighted that it is the 30th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, as society, we indeed have to reflect as to what extent did we live the commitments we made and adopted through the United Nations. With the digital era, the nature of the information and communication worldwide is changing. The 1991 Windhoek Declaration is considered a benchmark for ensuring press freedom, promoting independent and pluralistic press around the world. The declaration triggered a number of similar declarations worldwide and the African Charter on Broadcasting adopted in 2001. In the recently released Annual Press Freedom Index 2021 by the Reporters Without Borders which ranks 180 countries, South Africa is ranked 32. 

With the advent of the digital era a flourish of many voices are expressed online, some leading to dropping of guards regarding ethical standards, disinformation and fake news. Further, advertising revenue is declining for the conventional media, necessitating new business models.

He highlighted in his response that, COVID19 brought about more new challenges, threatening closure of some media houses, decline in circulations according to recent reports of the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), financial difficulties, budget cuts and job losses. He argued that these challenges threaten the objectives of the Windhoek Declaration, our legislative objectives and thus our democracy itself. With the increased exposure to the digital economy, what creative, innovative and practical solutions should our country explore to support, strengthen and deepen media diversity and development, quality of media, improve and maintain ethical standards. 

“We need to work together as all concerned, having regard to the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, look at how best do we devise strategies to help save our media, transform and diversify the media, and ensure we have free, vibrant, robust media that reports fairly and accurately, that provides reliable and credible information to the society,” said Mtimde. 

He adds to achieve this, we need to think out of the box, get out of our comfort zones, ask ourselves whose interest is our media serving if any, rethink completely, review media transformation, relook at the journalism and media studies curriculum, invest in journalism, to ensure we bring together inclusive wisdom and therefore media freedom and diversity enjoyed by all to create an informed and knowledgeable united, nonracial, nonsexist, democratic and prosperous society.

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