Ranjeni Munusamy / South African journalist
Will there be a recovery for the journalism? Would it become normal to reveal the truth and hold the authorities to account without fear of the wrongdoers? Or should only journalists bear the burden of always telling the truth, regardless of the consequences? I have no idea.
In his 2019 book, “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America”, CNN anchor and chief correspondent Jim Acosta recounts
an extraordinary public exchange between him and former US President Donald Trump.
The incident took place in the wake of deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 when racists marching to unite white supremacists and neo-Nazis clashed with counter-protesters. Rather than condemning the racist thugs, Trump had said the display of hatred, bigotry and violence was “on
Reporters including Acosta took Trump to task for this, leading the ex president to resort to the legendary and childish theatrics that defi ned his presidency. “You’re fake news,” he scolded Acosta. The journalist would not let the matter go and tackled Trump on the issue again the next day, leading the following exchange.
TRUMP: Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. If you look at both sides – I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. And if you reported it accurately, you would say.
ACOSTA: The neo-Nazis started it. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest –
TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves – and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fi ne people, on both sides. You had people in that group.
ACOSTA: No sir, there are no fi ne people in the Nazis. As Acosta points out in his book, he was not asking the then president questions – which is what much of the world assumes is the role of journalists. Instead, he was confronting Trump with the truth. This is easier said than done, especially in a world awash
with disinformation, populist rhetoric, sponsored propaganda, chauvinism, online harassment and denialism.
In this context, journalists cannot simply ask questions and report “many sides”. The mainstream media is the frontline in the global information warfare and therefore must be protectors of the truth.
Years of dangerous disinformation campaigns have manifested in severe political consequences in many parts of the world – from Brexit in the UK, to the rise of white nationalism in Europe and the US, to the onslaught on civic freedoms in Turkey.
Standing up to the bullies, the racists, the rogues, the misogynists, the tyrants, the abusers, the anti-vaxxers, and the climate denialists is a heavy burden for journalists to bear. It is particularly difficult to confront those who wield power. Some pay the price by having their lives and their freedoms taken away – as has happened to hundreds of media workers in Turkey.
Others face abuse, harassment and character assassination. For women journalists, rape threats and sexualised attacks are par for the course. In strong democracies, the media fraternity and civil society are able to fight back.
When Acosta’s White House accreditation was revoked after another prickly exchange with Trump, the matter was immediately challenged in court. Acosta’s press pass was restored after a week.
In China, Turkey and many countries in Africa, trying to restore media freedom and other civil liberties through the courts would be a foolhardy exercise.
In 2018, I was among five journalists who through the South African National Editors’ Forum sought protection from our country’s Equality Court against a barrage of abusive and dangerous threats from the second biggest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and their supporters.
As it turned out, the application was defective as it should have been lodged in the normal court system rather than the Equality Court – journalists do not have special protection against discrimination under the South African Constitution.
The ill-fated application only emboldened the EFF and their supporters and also led to palpable self-censorship amongst some journalists to protect themselves against attacks. Some journalists had tried to downplay the threats, asserting that they were not “cry babies” and attacks on the media were far worse in other parts of Africa.
When arguing against the application, the EFF’s legal counsel declared that journalists should be made of sterner stuff and roll with the punches. Sadly, some in our profession believe that too. One of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it allowed people to speak more openly about the emotional toll of isolation, sickness and death.
Journalists too have been more forthcoming about the fear and stresses of covering the pandemic. Some of those who were previously gung-ho now realise the importance of mental health and self care in our profession. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, everyone who has had to distance from others, contend with serious illness and death, lose their livelihoods and adapt to a new way of life has felt emotional exhaustion. Hopefully there will be recovery and greater normality as more people vaccinate.
But will there be a recovery in the practice of journalism? Will it be normal to expose the truth and hold the powerful to account without fearing the bullies?
Or should journalists always bear the brunt of telling the truth, irrespective of the consequences?
For most of my career in journalism I knew the answer to this question. Now I do not.
- Ranjeni Munusamy is a South African journalist for over
20 years. She previously worked as associate editor and columnist at the Sunday Times and Daily Maverick.