The run up to this year’s local elections has taken on a violent hue. Service delivery protests have got increasingly heated, police brutality of the like not seen – or at least, not seen by television cameras – since apartheid and stories of plots, hit lists and assassinations are rife.
In the middle of all of it are the journalists and photographers sent by their news editors to bring back the news. And these reporters aren’t like the tough and seasoned correspondents who covered the violence associated with apartheid’s atrocities. Many of them lost their lives.
In the light of this, and with less than a month to go before the May 18 poll, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) with International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is running a Social Unrest and Safety seminar for journalists working in the field in the lead up to the elections.
Michael Schmidt, executive director of the IAJ, said his “passion is training journalists in covering conflict in transitional societies, and improving their safety while doing so”. This is something Schmidt has experience in having “covered KwaZulu-Natal, Lebanon during the Summer War, Chiapas, Guatemala, Darfur, the DRC and other conflict zones ”.
He believes media houses don’t manage journalist’s safety properly. “This was a key reason why I established the Professional Journalists’ Association (ProJourn) last year – and I’m pleased to be able to report that I am busy negotiating for a group of psychologists to do pro bono work for ProJourn members suffering from trauma.”
“After interactions with the likes of the International News Safety Institute and the International Institute for Journalism in Berlin, I am looking at reviving my Conflict Reporting Masterclass which João Silva participated in before he lost his legs in Afghanistan, but in the interim I have started The Ulu Club as a social club for journalists covering conflict.
“More immediately, however, yes, the days when journalists were welcomed into our poor communities during conflicts with the police appear to be over, at least in certain areas such as Diepsloot, and at least since the 2008 Pogroms. There are many reasons for this, including anti-media rhetoric by political firebrands, but journalists themselves must take some responsibility for failing to maintain grassroots contacts; this Seminar hopes to rectify that,” he told TheMediaOnline.
Schmidt said the ICRC became involved “after talking to myself and IAJ consultant Ray Joseph about how to deal with the issues raised by humanitarian interventions in South African communities that were experiencing violent times, especially service-delivery protests, xenophobic attacks and so forth”.
Schmidt said: “The ICRC of course has an exceptionally distinguished record of protecting civilians in conflict zones – and this includes journalists, even if the nature of our job leads us not to consider ourselves civilians in the strict sense of the word. They have produced, for example, safety toolkits on safety for NGOs, which apply equally to journalists, and they engage continually with our colleagues around the world on safety issues.”
The seminar will include speakers such as e.tv’s Jody Jacobs, recently a victim of violence when covering service delivery protests in Ermele earlier this years, and Kim Ludbrooke from EPA who was attacked in Diepsloot. Giving key insights will be the Mail & Guardian’s specialist reporter in inequality and social justice, Kwanele Sosibo.
The seminar goes further, however, by bringing in community leaders to talk to journalists about issues on the ground, and the media reports such activism.
“We selected a panel of three community leaders with established grassroots credentials to talk to us about how the media (mis)represents community interests in times of strife. We will be hearing from Bricks Mokolo, a veteran anti-apartheid activist who chairs the Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee, to Phineas Malapela, of the Working Class Crisis Co-ordinating Committee in Sebokeng, an organisation that pre-dates the democratic era, and to Sipho Magudulela of Katlehong Concerned Residents.
“We’re not saying those communities are aflame at this instant, but conflicts are processes, not events and there are deep-rooted social complaints in all three areas that have repeatedly spilled over into open conflict with the police, to highways blockaded with burning tyres, all those common signs of distress that we have almost gotten blasé about – that is, until the killing of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg,” said Schmidt.
Unfortunately, complaints that many journalists have but a surface understanding of these issues goes a long way towards the resentment of people experiencing them on a daily basis.
“At the Open Society Foundation’s launch of their local government elections reporting toolkit a few weeks ago, one of the speakers cited statistics on media coverage of the 2009 national elections which made it appallingly clear that readers and audiences had been deluged with party-political mudslinging, with wafer-thin he-said-she-said reportage – and so little coverage of the actual issues at stake in the election as to be irrelevant’” Schmidt said.
“So who does one blame? The politicians themselves who generate so much hot air, sure, but also the editors who feed politicos’ bloated egos by keeping them on the front page. I feel that many of our journalists are precious, disdainful of doing the necessary leg-work in townships well before the tires are set alight, and snooty about dealing with our country’s poor majority,” he added.
The solution” “We have to rebuild a patient, painstaking ethic among our journalists; and research into the issues does not mean working the phones, it means hitting the streets. Hopefully then we can re-establish the mutual trust we seem to have lost in some communities, improving our safety by giving voice to the voiceless.”
The seminar is taking place on May 3, 2011 at the IAJ in Johannesburg. For more information, www.iaj.org.za