Gwen Lister, editor of The Namibian and a vocal advocate of press freedom, gave a thought-provoking speech at this year’s Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Awards that took place last week. “As the media world changes with almost frightening rapidity with the onset of the digital revolution and new technologies, the survival of print will be more contingent than ever before on journalistic excellence and connectivity with the people,” she told the audience. Here is her speech in full.
I’ve been at several conferences where new media practitioners – note I do not call them journalists – have all but buried newspapers as something from a bygone era. As someone with over three decades in print, I’ve been called a dinosaur because I remain a ‘believer’, but I have nevertheless tried to listen intelligently as smart young men in suits talk about algorithms, stealth models, fast flips, going viral, and wondering where that leaves us. And I’ve looked around at the audience – and seen the often puzzled faces of idealistic journalists who believe in their craft; in the need to keep their readers, listeners and viewers informed, and who, especially under draconian regimes, have often paid heavy prices for doing so – and seen that they are wondering too!
At the same time I find myself grudgingly acknowledging that freedom of speech can never have enough defenders, and that the digital revolution, with all it entails, including Facebook and Twitter and other social media tools, are irrevocably with us, and have helped give voice, for example, to ‘people revolutions’ in situations on our own continent where vibrant and independent print and other traditional media, are prohibited.
So, resistant though I may be to the prospect of a totally online world, I also acknowledge that it is not an ‘either-or’ situation.
A world in which there are no newspapers, would be a joyless and dare I say uniformed world indeed. But those of us who’ve started our careers in the era of hot lead, and have witnessed the changes from typewriters to computers; landline telephones to mobiles and from telex machines to e-mail; and who believe in the power and the ability of the pen to change the world, simply need to adapt in order not to die.
I do believe that our survival depends on us; rests on the shoulders of those like many of you finalists and prizewinners for journalistic excellence in this room tonight. The biggest threats to traditional journalism are undoubtedly the loss of public support as a result of loss of passion and commitment on the part of ourselves.
And this is why, whenever I talk to students, aspirant journalists, and my colleagues in the profession and at my own newspaper, I emphasise the need for us to up our game all the time and enhance our levels of journalistic excellence, commitment to ethics and sense of responsibility to the people we serve.
In several countries in southern Africa, including my own, we submit ourselves to self-regulation, and I have no problem with this, but it also happens in the face of constant pressure on the part of governments to control us. The online world, on the other hand, does not always feel the same sense of accountability and journalistic thoroughness.
I remain concerned about the fact that so many young people entering the profession are doing so simply because they want jobs and not because they believe in what they do. They are the 8-5 generation, often content just to do events-reporting and sloppy journalism with scant regard for the ethics which so vitally underpin what we do. If print media does die, and I hope I never see the day, then we must be prepared to shoulder a large portion of the blame.
Many will talk about objectivity and neutrality, but in my view good journalism cannot be achieved without both passion and principle, which in turn I believe, will continue to engender public support.
While there have been some successes in terms of media freedoms in southern Africa in the recent past, we all know that this is a fight that can never be completely won. As you all know, we have just recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, which was a groundbreaking achievement for media in Africa. Among others, it called for a diverse independent and pluralistic media and the removal of government controls.
The decades which followed saw a much more vibrant media landscape, with the growth of new initiatives leading to more choices for our people.
But SADC governments, while paying lip service to among others, the Windhoek Declaration on an independent and pluralistic media, have never been entirely comfortable with press freedom, and generally continue to harass independent press and muscle their own agendas onto the public through control of state broadcasters and other media. In most countries of the sub continent journalists have opted for self-regulation in an attempt to stave off Government control of the media, and to varying degrees of success.
At the same time I often ask myself the question whether online media, while they have as many and perhaps more rights than practising journalists in traditional media, are helping to share the responsibilities of protecting media freedoms, and adhering to ethical frameworks. In terms of the latter, a speaker from the London School of Economics recently described online journalism as a ‘race to the bottom in terms of ethical standards’.
While this may not always be the case, it needs to be said that what are now referred to as traditional media – namely print, radio and television – are not exempt from this criticism either. Perhaps because so many are now entering media simply to have a job, their commitment to high standards and professionalism can be found wanting. And so we all know that there are those among our ranks who have misconstrued, deliberately or otherwise, the rights to free speech and press freedom, abusing these rights at the expense of our responsibilities. And in so doing, they have played into the hands of those governments already reluctant to accept the role and necessity of a fiercely independent media, so vital for any democracy.
But we mainly have a lot to be proud of. Brave pioneers in independent media in the sub-continent and elsewhere in Africa, have paved the way for many of the freedoms that we now enjoy today. The adoption of the Windhoek Declaration in 1991 also largely helped break the stranglehold and control of African Governments over the media. In turn the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration paved the way for similar initiatives in other parts of the world, and as you all know, culminated in the UN General Assembly marking May 3, the day on which the Windhoek Declaration was adopted, as Press Freedom Day worldwide.
But to get back to my concerns about print media, newspapers in particular.
In Africa we are in the fortunate position that print seems to be growing rather than the contrary. In many parts of the world, newspapers continue to struggle to survive and many haven’t made the cut. While the spread and growth of internet access, opening up a host of new media possibilities, is generally given credit, if that is the right word, for print’s demise in countries in Europe and in the US, I would vouch to say that a loss of public support is a primary reason.
Internet access in Africa, in my view, and I think the statistics will bear me out, remains a fairly elitist thing, and I believe this status quo will remain for some time to come. The cellphone, rather than the computer, is clearly far more accessible to a majority of our people.
So for print media to survive in Africa, and to rise to even greater heights in the future, I believe we have a few things we need to do, and these include: raising the standards of our journalism, making excellence our goal, because with the loss of professional journalism, we will never be able to hold power accountable; and looking at ways and means to interact with our readers, and in this regard we can also try to converge with online and digital media to reach a wider audience, and in turn, give our audience a greater access to what remains a largely static media.
Our mission remains to inform our readers, to provide arena for debate, cultural expression and to take on the role of public watchdog. We remain vital constituents in the democratic process.
It is not only independent reporting which is important, and the absence of restrictions on our work, but also the extent to which especially marginalised communities can access the media and make their voices heard.
We continue to call on governments to promote a pluralistic and diverse media environment, and to divest themselves of the media they continue to control. The battle for press freedom and access to information continues and I hope that all of you will be in the forefront of that fight.
Finally I commend the spectrum of finalists and prizewinners here today – from writers to columnists, cartoonists, graphical journalists. I am encouraged to note that the outlook cannot be so bad for our craft when there are still journalists of calibre who consider their calling as more than just a job!