Jean-Jacques Cornish

World Press Freedom Day in a time of COVID 19

by Jean-Jacques Cornish

On World Press Freedom day it is apposite that we show concern and solidarity with colleagues under the thumbs and worse of oppressive regimes.

On our continent, I think of those bravely trying to speak truth to power in Eritrea, Rwanda, Morocco and Zimbabwe among others.

We may justifiably take a modest bow when told that we are an integral part of democracy by giving  people the facts that enable them to make crucial decisions about their futures.

It is all very reminiscent of the apartheid days when South Africa’s independent media could explain their mission statement in a paragraph.

It was all about ending one of the greatest evils of the 20th century.

We used to hand off compliments about our courage by saying to our readers and listeners that it was in fact they who were being brave.

We had the information and were able to get it to them by driving a coach and horses through the oppressive machinery of the apartheid regime.

It was the people who had to act on that information.

So important as we liked to think we were, it was about them, not us.

Things have changed dramatically since then.

The democratic government in South Africa has lamentable failed to keep its promises as a liberation movement.

Corruption, greed and inefficiency have enriched a thin strata at the top of society and destined the majority who voted them into power to perpetual suffering.

The independent media, which always was a business operation, has been forced to make deeply compromising choices to secure their very survival.

The economic downturn has put them on the back foot.

The COVID 19 pandemic has already pushed some outlets over the edge and threatens to send others into the precipice.

This is reflected in the coverage of what is unquestionably the story of our generation.

Young and inexperienced journalists, who are the reporters that proprietors can afford, are doing their level best to keep their viewers, listeners and readers abreast of developments.

They cover virtual media briefing and try to make sense of the utterances of ministers who are often as much in the dark as they are.

The analysis, both positive and critical, is largely left to the small band of foreign correspondents.

Surely this is the job of the South African media.

Even with the relaxations that came last Friday, our lockdown is one of the most draconian on the planet.

We make the United Nations roll of shame for excessive action by security forces policing the enforced stay-at-home.

We are also in the top ranks of countries suffering gender-baed-violence during the enforced confinement .

What happened to the moral high ground of 25 years ago?

Ministers have allowed their personal ambition and prejudices to impact on their decisions.

A perfect example is continuing on plainly spurious grounds to deny the sale of tobacco products. This was clearly designed, among other things,  to embarrass President Cyril Ramaphosa who now has to countermand the inveterately anti-smoking Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, whom he has put in charge of this process, if he wants to keep the word he gave last week.

As to the continued alcohol ban, we can be assured of heavy-handed enforcement under Police Minister Bheki Cele.

On World Press Freedom Day surely we should be doing our job by shining  the light on these inequities.

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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.