On Wednesday 19 October 1977, just over a month after the death in detention of Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, Apartheid’s notorious Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger, struck a mighty blow against media freedom in South Africa. In one fell swoop he not only banned 19 Black Consciousness-associated organisations, but also the publications, The World, The Weekend World and the church publication, ProVeritate, arresting and banning a number of editors, together with prominent black journalists like Mathatha Tsedu, Don Mattera and Joe Thloloe.

That day 42 years ago, which became known as Black Wednesday, was again commemorated this past weekend. It was a time when photographs of banned persons could not be published and neither could they be quoted; when newspapers were often printed with sections blacked or whited out. Other progressive titles – The Rand Daily Mail, South, Vrye Weekblad – became casualties and the government’s grip on the Public Broadcaster, always strong, became a stranglehold.

Well, one might say, that was prior to the current democratic dispensation: is there any point in continuing to mark Black Wednesday? Sadly, yes. Although freedom of expression and the media are entrenched in the South African constitution and an effective press code is implemented, there is still constant political and economic contestation to gain control over the media for various nefarious purposes.

There have been countless attempts either to muzzle it or to compromise its independence. The juniorisation and dumbing down of newsrooms as well as state capture have also played their parts. As a prime example, one needs look no further than the SABC where Hlaudi Motsoaneng completed the demolition job started by the previous regime.

Even more worrying have been growing threats of violence from certain influential politicians towards journalists, especially females, who have been instrumental in exposing much of the hard-core corruption currently being aired in the Zondo and other commissions. However, the greatest threat to accurate and responsible journalism today must surely be the rampant spread of misinformation or fake news via social media, together with its unquestioning repetition and embellishment by some media practitioners who can’t be bothered to verify the information.

Media consumers need to remain constantly vigilant. The message may sound true, or you might want it to be true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is true. Let us use our discretion and double-check the facts before reposting every tweet or facebook comment we see. Malicious and manipulative rumour-mongering can destroy the lives of individuals and entire communities. For its part, The Village NEWS once again commits itself to transparent, independent and responsible journalism in service of this community.

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