World Press Freedom Day: the ups and downs of digital


The use of digital technology has taken the media industry by storm globally, giving journalists the flexibility they need to carry out their work from any corner of the world. But despite the convenience, it also puts them at great risk of surveillance – compromising their safety, their relationships with their sources, and their work.

As the world marks World Press Freedom Day on May 3, University of Cape Town (UCT) alumnus Humbulani Rambau, journalist and founder of community radio station Vuwani FM, shared his take on view on the theme of 2022: “Journalism under the digital siege”.

Rambau graduated with a BA in Film and Media from UCT in 2005 and has worked for SABC and several community radio stations across the country. He has also worked in community media development for the South African government.

“In South Africa, journalists who have uncovered big stories of corruption involving high-level politicians have been subjected to scrutiny.”

“Surveillance of journalists is endemic globally. Senior Senate officials from the United States Department of Justice face [criminal] fresh after [allegedly] status information leak. Similarly, in South Africa, journalists who have uncovered big stories of corruption involving senior politicians have also come under scrutiny,” he said.

The ups and downs

And it’s all made easier with the digital technology journalists use to do their jobs, Rambau said. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example. Even though journalists were considered essential workers at the height of the pandemic, as the country shut down in March 2020, strict lockdown restrictions meant meeting with sources to discuss leads was out of the question. ‘story.

“Face-to-face interactions between journalists and their sources have been interrupted due to the lockdown, and journalists have been forced to use digital tools and apps to work. Because some of these tools are not end-to-end encrypted (a communication system where only communicating users can read messages), interception of content is much easier. Therein lies the danger,” he said.

Yet, if used correctly, digital tools offer journalists endless opportunities, including the ability to work freely from anywhere in the world and at any time of the day or night.

“Except for the question of surveillance, digital media has many advantages and it has truly changed the industry. It has the ability to unleash media freedom like never before, and only because anyone with a gadget – a smart cell phone, tablet or laptop – and a working internet can tell a story,” he added.

Commercial Media vs. Community Media

Rambau said it is important to note that large commercial media are benefiting much more from digital technology than newspapers and community radio stations. This was especially true at the start of the pandemic. Major media outlets with large budgets had the resources to share their stories widely across multiple digital platforms. Community media, on the other hand, faced a lack of resources that severely limited their work at the time.

But, Rambau said, it was admirable how community media used the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity, leveraging social media platforms to reach as many South Africans as possible – using video and social media. text to get their messages across; although it is not always so easy for journalists working in rural areas. Limited telecommunications network coverage, soaring data costs and little access to digital technology make it very difficult to tell the stories of these communities.

“That’s where we have to step in to support them in any way we can.”

“Unfortunately, this is yet another disadvantage faced by community journalists in rural areas. And that’s where we have to step in to support them in any way we can,” he said.

The responsibility of a journalist

Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by the South African Constitution, Rambau said journalists also have a responsibility to do their part and use the tools at their disposal wisely. He said posting unverified stories that can lead to serious reputational damage is a no-no. Thus, verification should be a fundamental rule in a journalist’s rulebook.

“Some journalists have abused the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press granted to them in this country. And in those cases, even if they apologize, there are no real implications,” he said. “This [behaviour] must change to reflect quality and unbiased journalism.


Comments are closed.