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Print media under great distress

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Journalists in the frontline of Covid-19. Study shows many under great stress.

MBABANE (19 APRIL 2021): Journalists around the world are going through a nightmare as newspapers buckling covid-19 crisis, are finally succumbing to digitization, closing down, and sinking with their livelihoods.

This existential threat is among the key highlights of the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) celebrated across the world on 3 May.

The Swaziland Editors Forum expects to host among others the Minister of ICT Princess Skhanyiso to a highlevel seminar to discuss the future of journalism, in the age of covid-19, digitization, fake news, ethics and professionalism.

Her Royal Highness is expected to be joined by the United Nations Resident Coordinator Ms Nathalie Ndongo-Seh and the Secretary General of the Eswatini Commission for UNESCO Ms Phumzile Hlophe who are expected to address the commemoration.

The seminar will be part of a series of rolling events around the globe that are expected to culminate in the global World Press Freedom Day to be hosted by UESCO in Windhoek, Namibia on 3 May 2021.

The existential threat that is facing newspapers that are dying and closing across the region is a top worry that is dominating in a series of webinars organized by the Southern Africa Editors Forum to address various threats facing the news media. Editors report newspaper closures and job losses in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Ringing the death knell is Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 that closed regular sales points for the print media. Without sales outlets, major magazines and newspapers closed down. As the uncertainty continues, media houses are reported to be seriously considering phasing out the print media.

While print has suffered, the broadcast sector, both radio and television have benefitted from a rise in audiences.

Because it combines the immediacy of radio, the video of TV and text of print, digital media is emerging as the clear winner that is benefitting from the crisis. Unfortunately, it offers no solution or solace for journalists. The strongest digital platforms will belong to the print media companies that have already lost money. While digital media needs the news content that journalists provide, digital media is not yet established as a standalone business. At the moment digital media revenue models are still far from developed to even afford to pay journalists. So far, the only thriving digital publishers are donor driven.

What is happening in the region is also happening here. Newsrooms which are always a hive of activity have been hit with Covid-19 infections and forced to close and sanitize at huge cost as the pressure of deadlines cannot allow such delays. To comply with social distancing requirements, newsrooms and can no longer fit the same number of people in existing space. Some journalists now have to work from home.

A major challenge facing industry profession leaders is what to do immediately to help journalists who are losing jobs as newspapers collapse. In some countries editors’ networks have been forced to go out and beg for alms from society to support a crisis response fund to help colleagues in dire straits.

Journalists in distress

In South Africa, the editors’ forum has mobilized resources to provide some form of safety net for journalists who have lost jobs. Similar efforts to create social safety nets have emerged in Lesotho. Media in other countries are appealing directly for government assistance, raising a new controversial dimension in the discussion of press freedom. Even though it has not come to this in the kingdom, these same challenges are a major threat to journalists.

World Press Freedom Day was adopted as a UN commemoration at the recommendation of the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) which issued the Windhoek Declaration following its 1991 General Conference in Windhoek, Namibia in 1991.

For its 30th Anniversary, the UNESCO global conference returns to Windhoek from 29 April to conclude on WPFD on 3 May with a discussion that will seek to highlight the new threats to press freedom and professionalism.

World Press Freedom Day 2021 will be commemorated under the theme: “information as a public good.” The theme seeks to highlight the importance of journalism to society, and very importantly, also to underline the important difference between information and other kinds of communications content such as disinformation, hate speech, entertainment and data.

The aim is to draw attention to the special role of journalism in producing news as verified information in the public interest. It also seeks to highlight how much journalism depends on a wider ecosystem which enables information as a public good by stressing three essential necessities for journalism:

• Steps to ensure the economic viability of news media;

• Mechanisms for ensuring transparency of Internet companies; and

• Enhanced media and information literacy capacities that enable people to recognize and value, as well as defend and demand, journalism as a vital part of information as a public good.

The WPFD conference, a statement from UNESCO confirms, will also highlight the significant problems facing the media and call for urgent attention to the threat of extinction faced by local news media around the world, a crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It will put forward ideas to tackle the challenges of our online media environment, push for more transparency of internet companies, strengthen safety of journalists, and improve their working conditions. The Conference will also call to support independent media and empower citizens to face these challenges.”

World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 and is today an important platform for journalists to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS).

Though each goal is relevant to journalists, Journalists are particularly implicated in the achievement of Goal 16 – Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions for the role in the advocacy for peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Concerns at home

WPFD 2021 is an opportunity to speak to the global theme: “information as a public good” as well as speak to issues that resonates with their domestic concerns.

They are also implicated in Goal 17 – Partnerships for the Goals which seeks their contribution in strengthening the means of implementation and revitalization of global partnership for sustainable development.

However the impact on journalism, journalists and the media industry of the Coronavirus 2019 (Covid-19) currently terrorising the world since 2020 can neither be ignored nor over emphasized.

Journalists, along with selected sectors were designated “Essential Services” and thus, journalists in their personal and professional capacities joined the frontline of the Covid-19 response. Journalists have to be personally and physically present to collect and disseminate credible information. When they are exposed to infection, they return to the newsrooms which are open plan settings, where they place other colleagues at risk. Newsrooms have been forced to close and sanitized.

Social distance requirements mean that Newsroom space is not sufficient to accommodate all people required for news production; forcing journalists work in shifts. This multiplied the intensity of the normal stress associated with meeting deadlines to present the news product on time.

When the country was under lockdown, shops and other outlets necessary for the distribution of the print media closed. Losses suffered by news organizations quickly hit business bottom-lines. Weakened media institutions cost cutting measures, logically can be anticipated to include reduced staffing.

All this accounted for accumulated stress for journalists. Many of them were infected and fortunately recovered. The fear of infection, of being laid off or loss of employment and livelihood is a sustained source of stress.

Unlike other professions similarly exposed to Covid-19 work stress, the news media typically makes no provision for psychosocial support that can provide counselling to people who go through stressful experiences.

Covid-19 has been a unique lifetime experience. An important attribute of the media is to bear witness and contribute to society’s historical timeline. A useful output of the 2021 WPFD would be the framework for a collaborative testimonial of journalists’ experiences going through the pandemic.  

Journalists in the frontline

Journalists are required to be mentally tough to survive in their job, and are assumed to be able to cope with any situation. However a Reuters Institute 2020[1] study found that 70 percent of journalists surveyed said they were suffering from psychological distress. More than a quarter of respondents demonstrated symptoms like worry, feeling on edge, insomnia, poor concentration, and fatigue that were “clinically significant” and compatible with the diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.

The 2021 Editors Forum WPFD national sub theme will be: Journalists in the frontline to highlight the stress journalists endure as part of their contribution to freedom of information and press freedom. In this regard, journalists will hold an open discussion of their experiences and lessons learned with their interaction with the Covid-19 experience.

To articulate the major issues and Covid-19 impacts, a senior journalist will present a paper articulating the everyday living experiences of journalists during a crisis.  


[1] https://www.niemanlab.org/2020/07/journalists-are-suffering-mental-health-consequences-from-covering-covid-19-according-to-a-new-survey/

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