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The Facts of Life: The Defence of Journalism is a Social Justice Issue

By Mark Heywood

Journalism may be as old as the hills, as the saying goes, but in the 2020s it is facing an existential crisis. If journalism becomes de facto extinct, left to thrive only in small and privileged areas of the world, it will also be a huge setback for those struggling for human rights and a socially just world. This is why it’s time for activists to make common cause with journalists and take up their struggles.

John Pilger, one of the world’s most pioneering social justice journalists, died in 2023. He once explained the importance of investigative journalism by saying that “without it our sense of injustice would lose its vocabulary and people would not be armed with the information they need to fight it.”

If you look at the history of journalism in South Africa, there can be no doubt that Pilger was right. From the earliest independent black newspapers in the nineteenth century, through apartheid and into the democratic era, journalism has been an unbroken thread linked to the quest for justice and equality.

The same can be said of the role of independent journalism internationally, as borne out by the cruel harassment and imprisonment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, now a free man again after 14 years. But while Assange may be the most high-profile instance, around the world journalists risk their lives to expose injustice and reveal truth almost every day.

Journalism has always been a threat to power, but overall it has been able to resist these threats. However, in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changing.” Of course, state persecution of journalists continues all over the world and is increasing.

But there’s a new and arguably more existential threat. In the last ten years, the internet and the digital media platforms it has made possible—at first thought to be a great leap forward for news gathering and dissemination, akin to the invention of the telephone or the television—have proved to be a double-edged sword for journalism. More and more, their abuse poses a threat that far outweighs their benefits.

Elite Capture

In the early days of the internet and social media, there was a belief that these new technologies and platforms would accelerate journalism’s trajectory and arc towards justice. But paradoxically, while they have undoubtedly increased the influence of media and been an invaluable tool for journalists, they have also weakened the power of journalism.

How have they managed this? I would identify the following trends:

  • The reach and massification of readership/audience made possible by new digital technologies and platforms has generated huge financial resources from social media platforms and made their owners inordinately wealthy. They were capable of using that wealth for or against social justice. They have chosen the latter.

  • The supra-nationality of the platforms has largely allowed them to evade regulation, accountability, and taxation.

    • With this power, they have abandoned the ethical principles and rules that self-govern journalism, which means that: They have no inhibitions about contesting meaning and even truth.

    • Their platforms can be wielded consciously to protect injustice.

    • Misinformation and disinformation can be used to polarise and divide people.

    • They have abandoned any pretence of impartiality and objectivity.

    • They have also weaponised social media against more traditional forms of media and created a new universe of alternative rule-free media to contest rules-bound media.

The result has been that tech giants (like Google, Meta, and X) have operated like an army to effect a pincer movement around the news media: first, the online platforms draw away advertising and traditional revenues, with the effect of hollowing out traditional media and journalism by depriving it of revenue. This creates “news deserts,” especially among poorer communities that do not have resources to fill these deserts. Instead, social media fills these deserts with information and ‘news’ that is beyond the reach of traditional regulation and ethics, fact-checking, etc. This is used to reshape public opinion.

Media Extinction

In the USA, this has been documented by writers like Ann Nelson in her book "Shadow Network, Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right" (2019), which notes how:

“Since 2004, almost 1,800 US newspapers have disappeared altogether, and hundreds of communities have become ‘news deserts’, without a single local news organisation...”

According to another study, by the end of 2024 one-third of U.S. newspapers will have disappeared since 2005.

But no part of the world, including South Africa, is escaping this onslaught. Only two weeks ago, News24 announced that it is planning to close the print versions of its newspapers, costing up to 800 jobs.

In its submission to the Competition Commission’s market inquiry, the Daily Maverick has called out the role of Meta, noting that:

“Platforms like Meta, through its subsidiaries Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, have become the largest enablers of [the phenomenon of disinformation and misinformation], taking a significant toll on society and newsrooms alike.”

The Daily Maverick adds that:

“Despite their substantial profits, these platforms have consistently shown reluctance to allocate adequate resources to combat this issue, exacerbating its impact. This is not without financial consequences and affects the viability of journalism…”

The end result is that in the last decade (perhaps dating from the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2016) there has been a counter-revolution against facts and truth, one that not only aims to normalise inequality and injustice but to fragment and debilitate the progressive social movements (and political parties) that seek a fairer world.

Its profound political consequences are captured by Filipino journalist and editor of the Rappler, Maria Ressa, who in her book "How To Stand Up to a Dictator" points out that:

“Without facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without all three, we have no shared reality and democracy as we know it—and all meaningful human endeavours—are dead.”

An Alliance for Truth: Digital Justice is Social Justice

These changes to the media environment are profound. They mean that social justice activists will now have to adopt better, bolder, and more innovative strategies towards working with the media and journalism.

This obviously requires careful discussion. But some of the strategies and activities that could be pursued include human rights activists:

  • Doing more to emphasise the connection between an independent and widely accessible media and the realisation of human rights; this means framing (and even litigating) access to independent media as a human rights and rule of law issue.

  • Making alliances with journalists and working hand in hand to defend publications and journalists who are under attack from either the state and/or the private sector.

  • Demanding that the state funds public broadcasters adequately and respects their independence.

  • Filling the “news deserts” with access to independent and progressive media.

  • Calling on governments and competition authorities to break up media monopolies and conglomerates.

  • Building media literacy among activists and in the general public to counter disinformation and misinformation.

  • Working with organisations like the Campaign on Digital Ethics (CODE) that are demanding effective oversight and reasonable regulation of the digital space and signing the Ten Point Plan to address the information crisis (Sign here).

  • Calling for criminalisation of creating and spreading disinformation that is dangerous to health and life, on the same basis that hate speech is criminalised.

Journalism and the news media are threatened by the new world disorder, at the very moment when it is most needed. The question is whether we will rally to defend the people who, in the past, have consistently used their trade to defend the defenceless.

Mark Heywood is a writer and long time human rights activist.

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