TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

I’m sharing something I wrote three years ago about censorship at the South African Public Broadcaster (SABCNews) which was initially published on IPS  in 2013 as I am thinking and reflecting on the bravery of SABC8 Journalist Suna Venter who  died from Heart Break Syndrome. I didn’t know then that the state of emergency in our country would escalate to a point where one of own journalists would be harassed, stalked, assaulted, isolated, hounded and victimized to the point of death. I don’t think it’s fair that one person, a single individual has to  die  before we all can realize how pervasive the power structures in all state and or public institutions have become. It’s not fair to sacrifice people at the alter of your lust for power,  money, influence or the vote. Yes,  principles might not pay your bills but not having them will certainly kill the conscience of this country. Can you live with that?

In the Public Interest

In this blog for World Press Freedom Day 2013, journalist Jedi Ramalapa shares the pressures journalists often face from State institutions to censor their work, and the emotional toll this can have on both the journalist and the subject.

In the Public Interest    

by Jedi Ramalapa

The South African Broadcasting Corporation or SABC broadcasts news and current affairs daily to more than 48 million South Africans, through 18 radio stations in all the 11 official languages and has three television channels which can be accessed even in the remotest parts of the country.

 

It is more powerful than any of the local South African broadcasters put together in swaying public opinion and, more importantly, with winning votes.  Having control over the public broadcaster is having control of the country.  Businesses and politicians understand this fact all too well.  If it’s not on SABC, it can’t be completely true.

 

I was busy editing an interview with one of the Marikana widows, whose husband was killed along with 50 or so other mine workers on the 16th of August 2012.  It was the kind of interview I had done a thousand times before, speaking to grieving relatives about their loved ones.  It was in my opinion nothing out of the ordinary or controversial.

 

But this time and for the first time in an eight-and-a-half year public broadcasting career at the SABC   they, the executive producers, asked to listen to the final cut of the interview which we planned to air later that day.

 

They listened as the widow spoke of her grief and her anger. “I blame the government, the police, the unions and Lonmin for what happened,” she said on tape.

 

Play that again, said the executive producers. They listened and said, “Cut out that part.”

 

“Which part,” I asked?  Like a naïve little girl.

 

“That part where she says:  ‘I blame the government, the unions, the police and Lonmin for what happened.’”

 

“Why?”  I asked.

 

“Because there’s no one to blame, we don’t know who is responsible, and we just don’t want to have to deal with questions.”

 

What questions, I asked myself in disbelief thinking that even in her grief the widow had managed to be impartial in apportioning blame to everyone involved in the Marikana massacre; not many people were able to do that.

 

But I couldn’t fight it.  I had woken this woman up at 6am to do the interview, which had taken me at least three days and a string of phone-calls to convince her to speak to me.  We cried together during the interview- in which I tried to convince her that life was still worth living. She had trusted me with her heart.  I was not going to let her down.  So I did as I was told and cut out the offending parts like a surgeon saving a life.

 

The widow had been censored in the most subtle of ways, by omission and not only was I not prepared for it, I became an accomplice.

 

Even today I don’t know who to blame for that moment in my life, myself for doing the interview in the first place? Or for failing to defend her or my work when I was told to cut out certain parts? I don’t know.

 

But I am writing this to honour the Marikana widow who in a moment of great loss and pain managed to do what I and the public broadcaster failed to do, speak truth to power and remain impartial.

ON THE CLOCK: THE FUTURE OF (SELFIE) JOURNALISM

I have been thinking about my chosen profession recently. In fact for the past 14 years. Each day I have asked myself if this is something I want or wish to do for the rest of my life. I have asked myself this question on every occasion I have returned from the heat of the field, still half listening to the interviews in my head, still getting accustomed to the characters in the play let alone sorting out the facts from the truth. I have asked myself this question while still trying to find the words to describe the mood, the cadences of ordinary scenes pregnant with nuances beyond logical description.  The scars in someone’s soul.  Hours after the interview(s) I would still be listening, trying to find the best way to include into my script all the silences between words in the interviews, to find the words that could describe feelings that were never expressed, thoughts that were never uttered, the hopes and fears that were caught somewhere in someone’s throat or which silently gathered behind brave round eyes or spilled over in a moment of weakness onto curled eyelashes and leaked without a sound on firm cheeks. Spreading across someone’s face in a distant smile.

I would still be thinking, wondering if there is a way to write about the sound of a silent tear drop, the weight behind each one, and how each tastes different to the other. Some are as light as mist while others heavy and thick like a pound of dead flesh, drop loudly on quivering cheeks like a thunderstorm. Other tears flow slowly as fluid as crimson lava from a raptured volcano etching pigments of memory on tired faces long after the eyes have dried up. Each tear contains a story. A story which seconds on the clock could never contain.  In order to write I tell myself, I can do it.  I close my eyes to the silent tick of the clock, each red dot marking a second, a minute, an hour before the show is over. I close my eyes and in the darkness tell myself that somehow I can do it. I can make them hear the sound of falling a tear drop.

The pressure is sometimes so strong I need a song that can help me silence the critic inside. I need music to initiate movement. To silence the white noise. In all honesty I cannot remember a day when I didn’t ask myself if this is truly what I have chosen to do with my life. Because in many ways I didn’t fully believe or accept that journalism and I are well suited.  The pressure to file a story every hour was both a wondrous thrill and a heavy burden. It was superb when the story pumped like the inaudible flow of blood in your veins, when you knew all the elements of the story as well as you know your own name, when you knew the subject inside-out, when it was a subject you believed in, when love took over and you found yourself floating on water like a surfer who has just caught the largest wave, the highest tide, flying. In those moments time would be irrelevant, in fact, when you reached the point of equilibrium between yourself and a story it felt as though time herself was bowing to you, waiting for you.  It stood as if in an eternal salute to a master creating a timeless experience balancing the past and future fully in the present moment.  Everything would be in sync, synergized and you would never ever want time to start its relentless drill again. Tick Tock. In fact you didn’t even think about it.  But those days and moments were rare, because you were not a specialist you had to learn a story from scratch every day, like cramming for an exam every single time you go to work.  Most days putting a story on air would be as hard and tedious as trying to squeeze milk from an old-cow whose udders have lost their youthful lustre.  In those moments time would always be against you, either too fast or too slow.  In my early days as a journalist, I  found myself quite perplexed, both at myself and the nature of what I was attempting to do every day,  to write down stories I was never told.  I would have to shut my eyes tight. Forget about time, write what was not said with varying degrees of success. At times I thought I put too much pressure on myself,  which is why at least once or twice a week, I would find myself  immobile unable to move, because I was still waiting to hear the splashing sound of  a falling tear drop as it hits the floor. It never has.

Today, I would like to believe that I can look at what I do with a certain level of professional dispassion.  Perhaps I am mature enough to capture a tear-drop and tell a timely story.

Technology is ever-changing the way we consume and understand news and current affairs. To a large extent, the tools we use, the technology itself has become news.  What makes the headlines today would probably have never made it onto a national news bulletin when I started working with words and silences over ten years ago. What would make headlines ten years ago, is not even considered news today.  Reporting/Journalism has never been as fast as it is today, it has never been so easy nor so convenient for any journalist, reporter or ordinary person with the right tools to break a story and make headlines.  There are a multiple ways in which stories can be told and often new reporters and journalists are expected to have an ability to use all of them with equal competence. From filing radio hard copy, voice reports from the field, capturing video footage,  taking photographs, getting the interviews, tweeting about it, posting (selfies) with news makers on Instagram, Facebook, liveblogs and podcasts while simultaneously conducting live television reports with a selfie stick for a camera operator. Then there are infographics, photo snacks and hashtags, meant to compress everything to 70 characters and 30 second videos.  Your value as journalist is embedded in your ability to do all these successfully, and by success we mean your tweets must go viral, your story must be shared by millions, reposted by a hundred thousand more, tagged, favoured, and retweeted, liked, by your followers around the world. That has become the bottom line. Any errors made we can apologize for later.

There’s no time to pause before we report what we see.   The story of the sound of a tear drop is out of sync with the times, it is old news. What  we are asking journalists to do today, is like asking someone who was trained as a  General Practitioner, to start doing brain surgery, be a  vet, an obstetrician , an ophthalmologist among other things all in the course of one day. Any self-respecting medical professional would refuse such an assignment not only because it is impractical but simply because such an assignment is a recipe for failure and the worst case scenario would result in one of the patients suffering from lack of attention and or expertise advice. Whatever the outcome we can all expect the results of this to be average at best.

While it sounds very impressive to say you can and have been able to do all of those things, it is ultimately not sustainable. Perhaps not so much for the corporation itself as it operates on the belief that it can just as easily “replace” you with someone younger and more eager to not only do all of the above, but to also run and build a website from scratch and do marketing and publicity while you’re still trying to figure out how Twitter works.  The question is not whether one person can  perform all those functions, it is whether doing so would be in the best interest of the profession and the bottom line.

I understand. I was trained in all the imaginable methods of reporting from what we called desk top publishing (DTP) at the time, to photojournalism, TV, radio journalism, online journalism. I’ve learnt how to edit words, moving and still pictures, design websites, edit documentaries, write scripts, shoot video footage, and produce essays, learn history, politics, and a few foreign languages in three years.  I know how it feels like to be turned into an octopus with suctions on every imaginable aspect of journalism, a jack of all trades but a master of none. It is wonderful to have a working knowledge of these tools of telling stories, but ultimately what matters most is the story. You can have the best and most technologically advanced story telling tools – but they will never tell a story like a human being can.

So in the past four years as freelance journalist I have seen how amazing it can be to be a one man show on the rare occasion that it works, and how devastating it can be when everything comes falling apart like a deck of cards. Because in the end we only have two hands, two eyes, two ears and two feet.

I have enjoyed working in solitude as a radio reporter for eight years. Yet nothing is sweeter and is more wonderful and fulfilling that embarking on a creative project with like-minded people. I have tasted the undeniable high of working with others. Nothing surpasses a High Five with another hand at the end of a long day.  No technology can replace another human being. The Technology we use is just a tool, it will never replace another human’s eye, another person’s perspective. It is a delicate balance between being independent, versatile and being unreasonably narcissistic.  An inanimate object, no matter how technologically advanced and innovative it is, can never replace a human mind heart or soul. And if one day we wake up and think  it does, then we will do so at our own peril.

The bottom line is,  life is better when we’re doing it two-gether.