World Press Freedom Day: Highlights from Cape Town event

07 May 2019
World Press Freedom Day: Highlights from Cape Town event

Proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, World Press Freedom Day is commemorated annually on the 3rd of May, to  highlight the fundamental principles of press freedom. World Press Freedom Day enjoins us to evaluate the extent of press freedom prevalent around the world; to defend against encroachment upon media independence; and to defend journalists under threat or pay tribute to those who’ve lost their liberty or lives while engaged in free expression work.

The theme of 2019’s World Press Freedom Day, ‘Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation, sought to galvanise discussion on not only the challenges faced by the media,  but also its potential to support peace and reconciliation processes. With South Africa gearing up for its sixth general election since the advent of constitutional democracy, this theme is particularly poignant and relevant.

While the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa was the principal site of World Press Freedom Day celebrations, from 1 – 3 May 2019, more than 100 complementary events were held in cities around the globe.

The Daily Maverick, South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) and Media Monitoring Africa joined forces to host an invigorating event at St. George’s Cathedral in central Cape Town. This event featured a formidable host of media stalwarts and prominent press supporters,  all of whom delivered impassioned speeches, which implored citizens to remain vigilant and contribute to the protection of the constitutionally entrenched free and fair press.

Event speakers included:

  • The Reverend Michael Weeder, Dean of St George’s Cathedral;
  • Phumzile Van Damme, DA MP
  • Janet Love, IEC Commissioner
  • Sam Mkokeli, SANEF representative
  • Father Peter John Pearson, Vicar General of the Catholic Church
  • Mike van Graan, Playwright
  • Robert McBride, Former Ipid head
  • Pieter-Louis Myburgh, Gangster State author
  • Mavuso Msimang, ANC Veteran
  • Andre Gaum, Human Rights Commissioner Andre Gaum
  • Marianne Thamm, Daily Maverick Assistant Editor and Event Moderator

PEN South Africa was represented at the event by its communications team, which compiled a snapshot of the day’s proceedings:

Buy papers! Read the whole story!

The first speaker of the day was Phumzile van Damme, Shadow Communications Minister and former Democratic Alliance Spokesperson, who brought substantial energy from her party’s pre-election rally to the podium.

Van Damme said, “[the] 1994 the elections not only freed the people of South Africa, but also the press. Today, the media continues to play a vital role in holding the government accountable. The media remains an important guardian of our democracy.”

Van Damme pointed out that despite   South Africa having a robust media, there remains a need to remain vigilant, as attested by the country’s current ranking of 31 on the World Press Freedom Index,  a drop of three spots from the 28th position held in 2018.

Van Damme further highlighted the important role citizens have to play in upholding press freedom. “Buy newspapers!” she urged. “Don’t just read headlines; read the whole story.”

Van Damme concluded that “press freedom is not just about the media – it’s about you as a citizen knowing what’s happening in your country. Knowing the good and the bad.”

Panel discussion

Van Damme’s impassioned plea set the scene for a panel discussion moderated by Marianne Thamm, assistant editor of The Daily Maverick. The panel, which was constituted of Sam Mkokeli representing SANEF, Andre Gaum  of the Human Rights Commission and IEC commissioner Janet Love, addressed key topics including among others the intimidation of journalists – women in particular – ‘fake news’, press regulation and independence, bribery and democratic freedom within the context of the media.

Mkokeli addressed the recent attacks upon veteran journalist, Karima Brown, and women journalists more generally. Mkokeli observed that while it is not unusual for politicians to harbour negative sentiments towards the press, social media has amplified hostilities and provided a platform that more easily facilitates terse engagement between citizens and public officials.

The issue of ‘rogue journalists’ – those not accountable to a professional association such as SANEF – was examined in the context of democracy and press integrity, particularly in the light of contemporary propaganda challenges, most notably fake news.

It was noted that while democracy has reduced the barriers to entry for independent agents, enabled freedom of expression and reduced regulation, this has in many instances served to undermine the relationship of media outlets to regulatory bodies such as SANEF, which fulfil an ethical and accountability oversight function. Gaum noted that the HRC has sought to augment this gap monitoring and responding to incidents of ‘rogue media’ hate speech violations, particularly on social media.

Janet Love noted the challenge of navigating freedom of expression in a country as complex as South Africa. She observed that it is possible to propagate mis- or disinformation without necessarily engaging in hate speech,  which complicates the IEC’s task of holding accountable those political parties and representatives compromising the enjoyment of constitutionally enshrined rights, including the right to freedom of expression, particularly during the fraught period of electoral contestation.

Importantly, Love pointed citizens to the IEC’s special digital portal,, which enables citizens to report concerns relating to fake news reports relating specifically to the upcoming general elections.

A call to wake up from the slumber of indifference

Father Peter John Pearson, Vicar General of the Catholic Church, characterised democratic freedom – in terms of which ‘truth’ is a necessary condition for the trust on which the social contract is premised – as a founding virtue of   South Africa’s democracy.

Fr Pearson located South Africa’s transition within the historical arc of emergence from holocausts, genocides, populism and continuing efforts to combat racism, gender-discrimination and class oppression.

He passionately appealed for society to be roused from the “slumber of indifference”, urging for a renewed and vital pursuit of truth, discussion and reason, particularly in the aftermath of the “honeymoon” period of the South African transition.

Asserting democracy by practising it

Veteran journalist and playwright, Mike van Graan, traced South Africa’s history of censorship, which in his view has persisted into the constitutional democratic era.

Van Graan emphasised the importance of a democratic media, arguing that “we assert…democracy by practising it.”

Media freedom and corruption cannot co-exist

Mavuso Msimang, ANC veteran and struggle stalwart, spoke about the importance of ensuring that people’s voices are heard by those in political leadership. Lamenting the event’s demographics, with audience members overwhelmingly white, Msimang highlighted the need to strive for representation more akin to the country’s demographics. In a similar vein, he appealed for media control to become more diverse and representative   to ensure that “[we] state our viewpoints, regardless of our ethnic or cultural background.”  Addressing South Africa’s regression in global ranking on media freedom, dropping from 31 to 28 – we need to ask, “what accounts for this deterioration?”

Msimang concluded that corruption and freedom of media are incompatible, which thus calls for a critical interrogation of the increased corruption in the country.

An attack on journalists; an attack on all

Robert McBride, former head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) admitted that his experience as a public servant made him appreciate why journalists are frequently perceived as ‘challenging;’ however, this in no way negates the importance of preserving freedom and respect for the media.

Roberts ventured that “an attack on journalists is an attack on the Constitution and therefore an attack on each of us,” adding that it is thus vitally important for journalists to comprehend and confidently and responsibly use their mandated power to secure a better future.

There is still hope

Pieter-Louis MyburghDaily Maverick/Scorpio investigative journalist and author of Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture, reminded audience members of the dangers journalists face daily.

Citing his personal case and that of his DM colleagues as an illustration, Myburgh pointed out the unrelenting criticism, backlash and concerningly both online and physical harassment to which they are subject on a regular basis.

Notwithstanding this and South Africa’s decline in free media ranking the RSF remains convinced that the country retains robust press freedom, when compared to countries such as China, which is known to incarcerate and forcibly disappear journalists.


The diversity of speakers represented on this panel ensured robust discussions on a wide-range of topics relating to the freedom of the media and expression more generally.  However, undergirding all of the contributions was the appeal to citizens to refrain from sitting back passively and a call to action for them to play a more concerted and responsible role in engaging and holding accountable both the press and public representatives.  This entails inter alia, contributing to the financing of media agencies either through direct support or the purchase of publications (to ensure greater independence) and remaining alert to and reporting to the relevant authorities any instances of fake news detected.

In the words of Pearson: Long live a free press!