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Journalism under severe financial threat

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Not only are jobs at stake, but so to are media diversity and the production of quality news to provide verifiable information in the public interest should newsrooms shrink or news organisations be forced to close

WHILE journalism plays its critical role during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in South Africa, it has also been under severe financial threat, as the lockdown has prompted advertisers to rein in spending and made it difficult to circulate newspapers and magazines, the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) said on Sunday, World Press Freedom Day.

Sanef believed that during the Covid-19 pandemic the news media had never been more important, and yet it was under severe threat, the forum said in a statement.

Historically, World Press Freedom Day had been celebrated as a day where citizens, journalists, and journalist organisations around the world celebrated the fundamental principles of press freedom and its benefits to society.

“We evaluate the status of press freedom internationally and in our countries, regions, and continents, and we recommit to defending journalists from attacks on their independence,” Sanef said.

“In South Africa 2020, we note the important work done by journalists, particularly covering the coronavirus pandemic. Journalists are designated essential workers and have been on the front line telling stories of the spread and containment of the virus, the impact the virus is having on people’s daily lives, holding to account those in authority, and educating the public on minimising the risk of infection.

“We have seen audiences soar as citizens seek information on health issues and the economy. However, while journalism plays its critical role, simultaneously it has also been under severe financial threat as the lockdown has prompted advertisers to rein in spending and made it difficult to circulate newspapers and magazines,” Sanef said.

Sanef noted the closure of Associated Media Publishing (AMP), one of South Africa’s pioneering independent media houses. AMP CEO Julia Raphaely announced that the company would cease trading and publishing all its magazine titles from Friday, May 1.

AMP published famous brands, including Cosmopolitan, House & Leisure, Good Housekeeping, and Women on Wheels. Raphaely said that, coupled with the global halt on advertising spend as well as the inability to host events for the foreseeable future, the AMP found it impossible to continue trading. She remarked, “For the last 38 years, AMP has been one of South Africa’s leading publishers and our titles have been part of many people’s lives. It’s a big blow for magazine media brands in South Africa.”

AMP’s decision to stop trading came soon after the distress call for increased government advertising support – and support from the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) – from the Association of Independent Publishers (AIP). AIP organised about 200 small independent community print publications across the country.

Also, several media houses had announced plans to cut salaries by up to 40 percent and/or to stop commissioning the services of freelance journalists.

“Sanef is aware that community media journalists and freelancers face some of the greatest threats. Freelance workers do not have the traditional protections of paid sick leave, insurance, and funds from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). Consequently, they face a disproportionate risk of financial hardship.”

A survey carried out by the South African Freelancers’ Association (Safrea) had shown the impact of the pandemic with more than 50 percent of members having already lost more than 70 percent of their income. Many freelancers had lost 100 percent, and because their work was often ad hoc rather than contractual, they had been turned down for government relief funding, Sanef said.

“Not only are jobs at stake, but media diversity and the production of quality news to provide verifiable information in the public interest should newsrooms, already under pressure, shrink or news organisations be forced to close.”

In the wake of this crisis, Sanef had decided to commission research on the impact of Covid-19 on the industry and what should be done. Sanef hoped to release the findings soon.

“We will be discussing these matters today (Sunday) as part of a three-part webinar series to honour World Press Freedom Day. The series is being jointly hosted by Sanef, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), the Press Council, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ), the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting coalition, and the AIP,” Sanef said.

– African News Agency (ANA)