The country could take a leaf out of the journalist profession on how not to make expedient use of the easiest and laziest card of all – race – for various downfalls, writes Glenda Daniels. The imminent launch of a new organisation for professional journalism shows the way forward, where race is not an issue any more.

Glenda Daniels writes in The Weekender:

In all transitional democracies there are gloom and doom moments. Ours has its fair share including making race an issue in everything. But there are also optimistic moments, if you consider recent developments in the world of journalists. 

The failure of the Forum for Black Journalists (FBJ) to re-launch is the first such optimistic moment.  The second is that the fact that a new non-racial organisation, Projourn, is in the process of forming and aims to launch before the end of the year. It aims to address both political and non-political issues that journalists face today. The third optimistic moment is that even though the majority of journalists in newsrooms today are black they are not essentialising race or identifying purely on race terms and not kow-towing to the ruling party’s desire to have a more loyal media.

The press appears to be loyal to its role and that is, speaking truth to power, being watchdogs and holding power to account, rather than being crude race reductionists.

Projourn, has drawn up its constitution through Facebook, and has attracted over 300 members of all races, so far. It has secured the endorsement of the Press Ombudsman, the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), the chairpersons of the two most active Press Clubs, the Freedom of Expression Institute, and various specialist writers’ organisations and scores of individual senior and junior journalists.

Since the Human Rights Commission (HRC) found against the FBJ last year, declaring that holding only black journalists gatherings was unconstitutional, the forum has dwindled into nothing, according to several black journalists contacted. Some of these journalists had joined the forum while many more said they were just not interested that the move was “behind the times” and “backward”.

Are there issues that could affect just black journalists? Does one write black stories and are newsrooms so full of whites that blacks don’t get their chance to “develop”? Not any more. There are very few white editors in the country today and the majority of reporters in newsrooms are black.

The issue about race and newsrooms is not a new one. In 1997, when first democratic president Nelson Mandela addressed a Sanef meeting he lambasted the editors saying black reporters were writing stories to please their white bosses. The editors were stunned. Mandela’ assumptions was: if there were more black journalists there would be a press more compliant and favourable to the ANC. Demographics have changed and the press has remained as robust and as critical as ever. This is cause for celebration.

Even on the basis of race, journalists are not one block with one agenda. Journalists have multiple identities (socialist, single, gay Jewish man; black, young and liberal; environmentalist, white, feminist woman, Muslim married man with two point one children and a white picket fence and so forth), with diverse ideologies, that merely reflect the kind of society in which we live. But the ANC feels it is one block, or entity all kow-towing to “white capitalist’ interests, yet it’s done no research to prove this.

When you hear talk of “the media” you could easily be forgiven for thinking that it is one monolithic entity – a big bad block of conspiratorial negative ill-doers thriving on the downfall of people and the country.   However people, do mean different things when they talk of “the media”, yet they use the one term to encompass all.

A teenager said: “You media have a terrible reputation. I will never become a journalist. You guys stalk people, for days, to get pictures of their cellulite thighs. You have no respect for other people’s privacy.” To this sixteen-year-old girl, “the media” meant celebrity, gossip magazines. To the ANC, the media is a bourgeoisie, capitalist conspiracy with a hidden agenda to bring it down. To ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema it’s the white racist media that’s to blame for society’s ills.  So utterly blinded is he by his ideological fantasy, he would not have noticed that the majority of journalists in newsrooms today are black, the majority of editors are black and the companies owning media houses, have black shareholders too. To a parent of a child with eating disorders, it’s the media’s fault for exhalting skinny women. The list of what people mean when by  “the media” is endless.

But “the media” is a heterogeneous, amorphous fluid thing comprising as wide a number of views as there are journalists. It’s as diverse as society itself, and even in one newsroom you will get a variety of views, within one race group too. 
To show this is difficult, not many will believe it easily. However, one glaring example is the failure of the FBJ to re-launch. But why make the assumption that it failed, there could be a whole underground world of black journalists meeting every week to discuss …I’m not sure what. 

It took several weeks to track down Abbey Makoe, leader of the forum, now editor-in-chief of Motswako Media Group: “We still meet but we don’t issue press releases to 702. The FBJ was not declared unconstitutional, the HRC is not a court, it can’t do that. It was declared undesirable by them. This is an uninformed decision. We have not challenged this in the High Court or the Constitutional Court.”

Be that as it may, that meetings indeed still do take place, it’s a good thing that the organization is underground, with hardly a presence. May it stay that way, and not rear its race reductionism and race essentialism in the public eye again.
Sidebar: Projourn to be launched soon.

Projourn was conceived after journalists became increasingly worried that that “all the big debates about journalism in our transitional society were being conducted by politicians, academics, editors, media owners, activists – in fact, everyone except working journalists” says one of the convenors of the steering committee, Michael Schmidt.

He says there is a need to establish a new professional association to defend and advance the interests of quality journalism in particular and of free speech and a free media in general.

Against the backdrop that the South African Union of Journalists (SAUJ) had experienced severe bureaucratic and financial-management problems and despite the best efforts of trade unions such as the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa (MWASA) and the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) to take up professional matters beyond their industrial brief, many issues affecting journalists have not been properly dealt with since the advent of democracy in 1994.

There is great excitement, says Schmitt, because there is now an organisation that journalists could call their own to take up the various fights. “Also, as journalists living and working in a society with the most stark inequality in the world, battling to transform from its past as a racial dictatorship, we are under immense pressure to reflect the interests of various groupings that are jostling for power and influence. We need a body that defends quality journalism against these vested interests. Lastly, with true freedom of speech and media freedom a rarity in much of Africa, it is important that South African journalists help tell the continent’s stories from an insider perspective – and in doing so, promote those values abroad,” he says.

The social networking tool Facebook is being used to popularize the organisation. Through this a Steering Committee has been formed, which will drive the launch. There is soon to be a web presence which is currently in design.
The 21 member steering committee represents newspapers, magazines, new media, TV, radio, wire services, community and freelance journalists from across the country. 

* This column first appeared in The Weekender. Daniels is an Open Society Fellow.