It was a satisfied group of assessors who completed two days of intensive judging. We had worked our way through a very large sample of South African newspaper journalism, and it was easily possible to conclude that the top entries were of superb standard, writes Professor Guy Berger.
Over the decade of this competition, it’s clear that the best of the country’s newspaper journalism just keeps getting better. That’s a fine result to have in a year when the 10th anniversary of the contest coincides with 20 years of the Windhoek Declaration.
It’s because of the 1991 Windhoek Declaration that the United Nations now recognises May 3 as annual World Press Freedom Day. And today, it’s because of the improving quality of journalism in South Africa that we can stand firm and confident in resisting those people who want to reduce journalistic freedom.
There can be no doubt that a state-appointed media appeals tribunal would cut the number of stories that serve the public interest. The 2011 Mondi Shanduka results are another salvo against that spectre.
Press freedom, as an extension of free expression, does cover the possibility of journalists making mistakes, and even of some being unethical. But it’s certainly hard to make a case for press freedom if such features constitute predominant practice in journalism.
More importantly, press freedom doesn’t serve the public when journalistic corners are cut, anonymous sources rule news agendas, factional games are played, and dogmatic watchdog-ism colours all political coverage. Such ills have been present in some of our post-apartheid journalism.
What the Mondi-Shanduka competition shows, however, is that a great deal of our output is journalism that really merits the name. It is also noteworthy that this high quality output, which contributes so much to public interest, comes especially from one sector of the media industry: the printed press. If newspapers have their wings clipped, whether from political or economic forces, the knock-on significance for society would be devastating.
Awareness of all this was part of the context in which 15 outstanding South African journalists spanning several generations did justice to assessing the 2011 Mondi Shanduka entries. Because of their commitment to journalism, they gave willingly of their time to scrutinise a record 760 entries (as compared to last year’s total of 601 submissions). The entries came from 37 newspapers from across all nine provinces, including the community press.
Yet, while celebrating the winning work, the judges were also far from being starry-eyed about the entries. In some categories, no runners-up were identified. And some of the best work could have even been better. Journalists at large, in all media, would do well to look closely at the category comments for tips towards further improvement.
South Africa is fortunate to have a rising tide of quality for our journalism. But it needs to keep lifting if press freedom is going to be cherished as a value that is unassailably worthy of widespread political, social and economic support.
|May the 2011 Mondi Shanduka contest help to maintain the momentum towards ultra-excellence.
Read the Windhoek Declaration here: //www.unesco.org/webworld/peace_library/UNESCO/HRIGHTS/327-331.HTM
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