Trevor Ncube: Speech for WAN 2007 Cape Town
His Excellence the President of South Africa Mr Thabo Mbeki, Distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen of the press, and all other esteemed participants. I wish to extend a proudly South African welcome to all of you and wish you engaging and fruitful deliberations over the next three days.
For us at the Newspaper Association of South Africa (NASA) the events of the next few days are the product of two years of planning and we are delighted that things have turned out so well. I need not remind you that this is the first ever WAN and WEF gathering to take place on our continent. The response from our newspaper colleagues has been phenomenal and we are grateful for your support.
We are proud and excited that this 60th WAN gathering is the second largest after Moscow last year. And the World Editors Forum (WEF) is the largest ever gathering of editors since these meetings started 14 years ago. There are 1 600 participants from 109 countries and a record number of participants from African countries. Thus we have achieved one of our goals of giving this gathering a strong African flavour. All in all this is the biggest gathering of editors and newspaper executives ever to take place on the African soil.
This gathering of opinion makers in our country and continent is a fitting curtain raiser to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. South Africa and the continent are ready for the next world cup. Preparations are well and truly underway and Africa awaits its moment of glory. We are aware of the purveyors of doom and gloom regarding the 2010 World Cup but I want to assure you that South Africa is ready to showcase the beautiful game on the African stage.
Part of the dynamism of the next three days will be the interaction of the participants from outside this continent, and especially the developed countries, on the one hand, with those from the African continent on the other. We have much to share and learn from one another.
It is safe to say that many of our delegates here today are blessed by being able to work in environments that enable you to be more mindful about economic rather than political viability. And for you, the economic race is well and truly on.
Unfortunately this is not the case with many publishers and news paper editors in the developing countries particularly Africa. It is of course logical that the all-consuming issues facing newspapers in most developed countries today are related to a context of technological change and competition levels that few people ever anticipated. But I also would like to ask those of you who do hail from such environs, to spare a thought for your colleagues whose contexts are just as challenging – but in a different way.
Here I refer to those newspaper editors and owners in the developing world, and especially Africa. Many of us face not only economic sustainability issues, but sheer political survival. Of course, there are developing countries which are democracies and thus where political pressures are not that extreme. But especially in Africa, many editors and publishers face very severe constraints from political rulers whose hands are much less-tied than those of their counterparts who operate under conditions of universal franchise, respect for human rights and the rule of law.
To take one example, cited by the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, who amongst other things claims that he can cure AIDS, was recorded in October last year as saying: “The whole world can go to hell. If I want to ban any newspaper, I will, with good reason.” There are Gambian editors here in Cape Town today, forced into exile, who can indeed attest to the hell they have been put through by this despot who rules their home country.
Totalitarian regimes are the worst, but there is also a general authoritarianism in many less despotic countries. This ethos arises from a mindset whereby media is not respected as an autonomous institution and a business sector in its own right. Instead, it is seen as a social instrument that can and should be wielded for particular purposes. The thinking of too many African governments is that media is a tool to be deployed for political or other objectives. And too many governments mistakenly believe that if they do not do so, some one else will.
This kind of outlook denies newspapers any independence to decide upon their own objectives. It disrespects our professionalism, and its default position is to disbelieve us even when we show non-partisanship as regards political power interests. Sadly, some African newspapers have indeed ended up publishing puffery about politicians’ words – as if canonising speech in print was sufficient to convert rhetoric into reality. There are also newspapers that play politics on behalf of one political faction or another, and where their partisanship is part of a power plot … rather than a product of an independent and cogent editorial preference.
However, it is easy to stand aside and issue ethical condemnations about those editors who compromise with politicians or those who work for Africa’s many state-owned newspapers. It is also easy to moralise about owners who have to tread cautiously because they depend on adverts in an environment of political patronage. To be in such shoes, and to try and make a difference, is the real challenge. It takes enormous talents of persuasion, reserves of fairness and integrity, and deep pools of professional performance.
In the face of the odds, there are those practitioners who have given up any aspiration towards an identity of journalistic self-respect. But equally, we have heroes who have kept up the good fight – even in some cases, walking off the job rather than kowtowing.
And let us also remember those who have paid, and those who in future will continue to pay, the ultimate price for their independence. Fortunately, between the defeatists and the dead, there are those who survive. These are the many press men and women around Africa, who pick their battles carefully, who strive to cultivate tolerance, and who construct successful alliances for press freedom. Many of them are here in Cape Town at this congress, and as they can testify, it is no small feat to do this. Each person here can learn from their courage, tactical sense and perseverance.
In an inadvertent Africanisation of an old proverb, the International Federation of Journalists recently criticised agents of the state and non-state actors who, it said, “have an ox to grind with journalists”. (IFJ Africa NewsLetter, September-December 2006).
One may chuckle at the vision this conjures up, but the sentiment is spot on. And in challenging the many regimes who place the African press in a grinder, or who seek to castrate the creature at minimum, we need to be sure to hold African governments to the fine-sounding commitments they make but which are too often left to wither on the vine.
We need to publicise stories such as when, on 30 January this year, the assembly of the African Union adopted a charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. This document states: “In order to advance political, economic and social governance, State Parties shall commit themselves to…” – and in the list of actions that follows is point 8…: “(p)romoting freedom of expression, in particular freedom of the press and fostering a professional media.” Such fine-sounding sentiments should be popularised, and the world’s press should regularly audit government performance in relation to them.
As part of building momentum against press repression, the global newspaper community is a critical component. The old trade union slogan of “an injury to one is an injury to all” applies in this regard. Unchecked violations of press freedom in one part of the world serve to chip away, bit-by-bit, the same right that is too often wrongly considered as irreversible in a different location. Violations and abuses embolden those elements everywhere who hold our institution in contempt – the people who seek to control, manipulate and even suppress the press.
Our challenges in Africa are not just political, but also economic. Our markets are small, our Diaspora is hard to monetise, and our advertising industry is handicapped by an absence of reliable media consumption data. Securing newsprint is often a problem.
Another exhibit of what African journalists encounter is recounted by the Commonwealth Journalists Association in their March newsletter. In Swaziland, it is reported that one Pastor Justice Dlamini recently used a church gathering to pray for the death of two Times of Swaziland journalists in order “to teach the media a lesson”. The cause of his wrath was an article about a church squabble. A few years earlier, the same man had prayed unsuccessfully for the deceased editor of the paper to be brought back to life, so at least he’s even-handed in a sense! But such semi-light-hearted issues aside, the coverage of religion – such as around the infamous Amina Lawal issue and the Danish cartoons – is a hot topic in a continent with a sizeable Muslim population. Just ask some of the African editors, not least our Nigerian colleagues, present. Promoting civil and religious tolerance is a major task for African newspapers.
And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) all these minefields – political, economic and religious – independent newspapers in Africa are resilient. The case studies are here alive and kicking amongst us, and I urge you to tap their rich and inspiring stories in this regard.
Worldwide, the newspaper industry is in good shape. As WAN data show, we are thriving across many indicators. In Africa, too, newspapers are growing. Therefore, in this positive vein, and in the spirit of the African press survivors, let us engage with optimism as we debate the future of our industry.
My appeal is that in so doing we should keep sight of the issues facing us as a whole: the economic, and the political, and also not forgetting the religious. Collectively, newspapers are an institution which has singularly helped propel human progress over the past few centuries. Collectively, therefore, there is no doubt that we can stand together and share our thoughts to ensure the continuation of our contribution across the globe.
For Africa to claim its rightful place in the community of nation’s African politicians need to begin to understand that vibrant newspapers are partners and not enemies in the task of creating democratic societies. Vibrant newspapers free from political control are a vital ingredient to creating a market place of ideas to propel Africa’s growth and development. Societies which live in perpetual fear of their politicians can never be creative and robust nations particularly in the knowledge based times we live in. Africa desperately needs to let loose the creative energies of her people by allowing them to think and express themselves freely. Indeed, only by setting her people free does Africa stand a chance of catching up with the rest of the world.
Let me conclude by thanking all our sponsors who have made this event possible. These include the Sunday Times, Remgro Limited, Mondi Shanduka and Mont Banc. I wish to give a special thanks to Cathy Pestana who has worked so hard to make sure everything goes smoothly.
I wish you all highly productive deliberations.