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ivoh | November 15, 2017

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The value of independence

Ryland Fisher

Ryland Fisher

By Ryland Fisher

In 1984, I was a young and reasonably successful journalist working at one of the mainstream newspapers in South Africa when I was approached by some “comrades” to give up my job and work full-time at a community newspaper called Grassroots.

Leaving my mainstream job meant that I would have to take a cut in salary of about 80 per cent, but I was quite prepared to do it because of my commitment to the struggle. Also, it was easy to make the transition from mainstream to community paper for me because I had been working for Grassroots after hours. Every day after work and every weekend, I would spend a few hours working on Grassroots.

It was easy to be committed to the struggle. After all, apartheid had been declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations and no right-thinking person could be supportive of a crime against humanity.

I argued, as did many of my colleagues at the time, that we were citizens of South Africa first before we were journalists and as such we had no choice but to oppose apartheid. So, our writing was openly pro-struggle and anti-apartheid.

We also argued that, in a situation like we found ourselves in, it was difficult to be objective because all South Africans carried too much political, social and cultural baggage. In many ways, our identities as South Africans were determined by apartheid and its myriad rules and regulations.
As citizens, we had to oppose apartheid but as journalists, we had to be able to report on everyone and everything. We thought that, at best, we could be fair in our reporting on people who were seen to be on the other side of the fence.

Of course, things also appeared very clear-cut in those days. It was easy to identify the good guys from the bad guys. All you needed to be considered a good guy was a commitment against apartheid and racism.

Today, many of the “comrades” who were active in the struggle find themselves in government, while others have benefited from economic opportunities offered by government. In some quarters, I would also be seen as someone who benefited from the new dispensation because I became editor of a traditionally-white newspaper, something that would not have happened before our country became a democracy in 1994.

This is despite the fact that, by the time our country became a democracy I had notched up significant experience in managing newsrooms and felt eminently qualified to lead a newspaper.
When we were involved in the struggle, and reporting on the struggle, we never realized that we were practicing a form of embedded journalism. We were quite prepared to sacrifice certain journalistic principles because of our commitment to the struggle. In many cases, we were prepared to overlook certain acts perpetrated in the name of our cause if reporting them could undermine our goals.

Now that we have a democratic government in place, made up of many people who were involved in the struggle, there are many South African journalists who are wrestling with their relationship with the government.

For many of us, supporting the struggle was also synonymous with supporting the African National Congress, as the leading liberation movement. Now that the ANC is in government, there is obviously an expectancy among those in power that this support should continue.

But it is not so clear-cut. Supporting a liberation movement with no power and the promise of a better life is much easier than supporting a government with power and resources to make this a better life but does not always work in the best interest of the people.

Suddenly, we have found that identifying the good guys from the bad is no longer easy. Many of the former “comrades” have adopted the worst practices of the old apartheid regime. Many have slipped into the role of government functionaries with ease and fail to understand why the media do not lap up their every word.

And the ANC, which we supported so freely in the anti-apartheid days, has also changed. Apart from running the government, the ANC today contains many people who were in the Nationalist Party that enforced apartheid and includes some former black leaders who propped up apartheid through the homeland system, a form of self-government for black people who were not allowed to participate in South Africa’s overall government.

Like many others, I have grappled with my relationship with the government. How do I assert and maintain my independence as a journalist? How do I remain independent in an environment where one wants to support the government in transforming our society from one of vast inequalities to one in which there is a more equitable distribution of resources?

I have come to realize that my support for the struggle and the ANC in the past was based on certain values that I hold dear, not only as a journalist but also as a human being. These values include a commitment to non-racism and non-sexism, a belief in a more equitable society, a
belief in a society where everyone would have equal access to education, housing and economic opportunities. A society where everyone feels safe.

I have realized that as a journalist and a human being I need to use these values to guide me today. If I practice these values properly, I will no longer sacrifice my independence, because I will realize that, on any given day, any party – political or otherwise – could be doing things to promote these values and, on another day, could be doing things to undermine these values. With hindsight, I have no regrets about being “embedded” during the struggle years. Now I value my independence more and, if I follow my values, I am confident it will make me a stronger and better journalist. And I will be able to continue to serve the people in the way that I did when I was working at Grassroots.

Ryland Fisher’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.