2023 year marks the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day. The UN says three decades have passed since it was proclaimed in 1993, in which “we have seen substantial progress towards achieving a free press and freedom of expression around the world.”
The proliferation of independent media in many countries and the rise of digital technologies have enabled the free flow of information. However, media freedom, safety of journalists and freedom of expression are increasingly under attack, which impacts the fulfillment of other human rights, according to the UN.
– There’s a now familiar groan every time the lights go out in South Africa. Due to a critical shortage of electricity, the national power utility institutes a daily regimen of scheduled power cuts.
Some areas in large cities experience up to ten hours of blackouts per day. The damage to businesses and a general sense of safety and security is yet to be properly calculated.
But it has also had profound implications for how community radio stations can continue broadcasting through the darkness. Most community radio stations have simply gone silent. Bush Radio, the country’s oldest community radio station, found itself off air for several hours per day.
In the townships of Cape Town’s sprawling Cape Flats district, Bush Radio has a special relationship of solidarity and belonging with the communities it serves.
Through its talk shows, training programs and social engagement campaigns, it acts as a sounding board for communities who often struggle to find representation and recognition beyond daily reports of gang violence.
Amidst all the other challenges facing the radio station, like aging equipment and dwindling sources of funding, broadcasting through the dark is the latest setback. It is a typical story. The challenges news media face may be different from place to place, but they are rapidly compounding everywhere.
And they have an impact on more than whether Bush Radio can remain on the air. What is at stake is the avenues available for their audience to communicate with each other, to take part in decisions that affect their lives, and to celebrate their own cultures.
This week, as the United Nations celebrates World Press Freedom Day – also 30 years old – it’s time to get serious about stopping what’s been labeled a media extinction event.
Until June 2020, I was the editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa. I’d hoped to restore the start-up rigour of one of Africa’s most cherished independent news institutions.
However, my experience of trying to run a newsroom, to keep public interest journalism alive in the face of a broken business model, revealed the grave structural crisis facing news media today.
Advertising revenue was already in free fall as so much of it had migrated to the social media platforms, but it was the pandemic that sent us over the edge.
We were forced to issue an urgent appeal to our readers to keep the paper afloat and while this allowed us to meet our most pressing commitments at the time, it did not resolve the deeper problem of quickly finding a consistent revenue stream that would allow the institution to be relevant in new ways.
My experience is replicated across Africa – and beyond. Media outlets are trying to innovate but cannot do so quickly enough to defy the harsh economic headwinds.
Independent journalism faces an existential economic crisis: traditional business models have broken down; new ones will take time to emerge. Economic levers are being used to silence critical voices, and private and political interests are capturing economically weak media.
So, what do we do?
In this moment of profound crisis, we must assert the value of news media. This is a moment for the world to come together to recognize that something drastic must be done to ensure independent journalism is supported as a public good.
So, when so much of the discourse around news media is steeped in despair – for good reason – working on the founding team of International Fund for Public Interest Media, as Journalist-in-Residence, has been energising.
Launching today [May 2] At the UN’s World Press Freedom Day conference, the International Fund is the first multilateral body dedicated to helping independent media in low and middle-income countries to weather the storm.
Bush Radio is one of its pilot grantees. It will use its small grant to supplement salaries and update its computer systems. It has also used its grant to purchase a generator to power the studio during blackouts.
So far, the International Fund has received support from world leaders such as Presidents Biden and Macron, with pledges from over a dozen governments and corporate entities, raising US$50m.
But its ambition is to emulate the success of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria or the GAVI Alliance, whose bodies have transformed the level of treatments and vaccines available to fight deadly disease. In the coming years we want to raise $500m, a sum more commensurate with the scale of the problem facing the media today.
A free, independent media is what underpins freedom of expression, human rights and all our development goals. Its decline will have a profound impact on democracy – for the fewer stories journalists are able to get to, the less we understand what is happening around us, the more we lose our understanding of each other.
Khadija Patel is Journalist-in-Residence, International Fund for Public Interest Media, and Chairperson of the International Press Institute.
IPS UN Bureau
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