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As we celebrate Press Freedom Day, we must reflect on the state of journalism

Don’t be silent when journalists are threatened or prevented from doing their job or are themselves in the wrong

By Themba Sepotokele

Aggrey Klaaste was no ordinary journalist. He was a revered and respected newspaperman and editor, notably of Sowetan where I cut my teeth as a cub reporter under his editorship nearly three decades ago. He was a cut above the rest and his peers and colleagues like Joe Thloloe, Thami Mazwai and Joe Latakgomo have on different occasions shared their experiences with the visionary editor. They have often used the might of the pen not only to communicate and converse with the world, but to bring apartheid to its knees.

As we commemorate Black Wednesday, the day on October 19 1977, when the apartheid regime banned 19 Black Consciousness organisations, and publications such as The World and Weekend World and detained scores of activists, including editor Percy Qoboza.

Since the dawn of democracy, the day has been celebrated as Press Freedom Day. From their respective days at The World, Golden City Post, Sowetan and New Nation, they used the might of the pen and the focus of their cameras not only to report events or cover stories, but also played a pivotal role in bringing apartheid to an end.

Klaaste pioneered and championed Nation Building. I count myself lucky as having to work under his editorship, having been mentored by the legendary Don Mattera, Monk Nkomo, Ike Segola and Joshua Raboroko, who took me under their wing.

At the launch of the Aggrey Klaaste Trust, I was moved when Sunday Times editor and former Sowetan editor S’thembiso Msomi said he realised the enormity of editing Sowetan when a staff member asked him whether he was aware he was walking into the shoes of a legendary editor. Msomi, Thloloe, Professor Anton Harber, Anna Majavu and Jerome Klaaste shared a podium at the launch of the Aggrey Klaaste Trust in Braamfontein, Joburg, as part of Press Freedom Month.

Actually, former Sowetan editors are privileged to have walked in the same pathway as Klaaste. They proudly described themselves as black first before being journalists.

As we observe Press Freedom Day, we must not only reflect on the role of the mothers and fathers of black journalism, but also on the state of journalism. We have to ask critical, sober and honest questions in the quest to clean and cleanse journalism of charlatans masquerading as journalists.

It is good and well that two journalists, Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia, have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which on its own elevates journalism, the role of the media and the important role of holding those in power accountable.

This shows the power of a free, independent and critical media. Although there are pockets of excellence in South African journalism that hold those in power accountable, we should not turn a blind eye or deaf ear when some in the media are in the pockets of the high and mighty. We should not resort to an ostrich approach when some journalists become praise singers and self-appointed spokespersons of the mighty and powerful.

We should not keep quiet when some rogue and cowboy journalism rears its ugly head. We should not be silent when journalists are threatened, intimidated, assaulted or prevented from carrying out their duties. The media, as a fourth estate, like Thloloe always says: “It must be on the side of the downtrodden”.

In giving us the good, the bad and the ugly as a mirror of society, the media must also look hard in the mirror to deal with a myriad challenges it is facing, some which are self-inflicted and those the society is grappling with.

As we celebrate Press Freedom Day, we should also ask ourselves questions about the calibre of young journalists who think journalism is a ticket to stardom and behave like celebrities instead of being activists and advocates for a better society.

We should ponder and ask ourselves questions as to who is teaching journalism students at institutions of higher learning, what experience do they have in the media? Journalists should ask themselves as to whether they are on the side of the downtrodden or the mighty and powerful.

They should ask themselves as to whether we are doing enough to celebrate our own, such as Klaaste and Qoboza and many others who have been forgotten, or we only remember them during Press Freedom Day? Where are books about the doyens of black journalism? Why don’t we lobby that certain streets and buildings be named after the stalwarts of journalism?

One is grateful that Klaaste’s son Jerome has taken it upon himself to honour the legacy of his father, we should do more to preserve and promote the work and role of journalists. It’s a disgrace that 27 years into democracy, we still have not published a book in honour of doyens of black journalism.

We don’t have academic literature about black journalism, yet we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Black journalism did not start and end with Drum journalists like Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba and Casey Motsisi. One hopes through the Aggrey Klaaste Trust, black journalists can us the platform, not only to honour Klaaste, but all doyens of black journalism.

• Sepotokele is a journalist, communication strategist, media trainer and journalism lecturer

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