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Democracy needs very critical media to thrive – Waldimar

Waldimar Pelser is Senior Deputy Editor at The Rapport, a South African newspaper under the Media24 group. In this interview held with Sunday Trust during the World Newspaper Publishers’ Congress in Kiev, Ukraine, he talks about the current state of the press in South Africa, the challenge of digital technology and how the media can stay relevant in people’s lives.

What is it like to be a journalist in South Africa today?

We are lucky that we have a very free and open society today - which we didn’t always have - to operate as a journalist. It is a space that one must always fight for to maintain. It is not a freedom that happens in just one day. There were some attempts just recently by government to clamp down on some press freedoms but they are being fought in the courts and elsewhere but it is a great country in which to be a journalist. Of course the media today is also passing through some of the changes that our colleagues are going through in many other countries in the world when it comes to technological change and behavioural change.

There new ways in which people prefer to get their news. I am a newspaper man so I will always want the newspaper but in these few years there has been quite a steady decline in circulations. Every year is lower than the last. So that is one of our challenges. Our challenges are on two fronts. On one end is maintaining the freedom that we have and on the other hand is expanding into the platforms where readers prefer these days to get their news. To go on mobile, to go online and to these in a way that will also make money ...and that is what we have not yet figured out.

I am sure there are often pressures from political and business interests in the course of carrying out your jobs...

There is actually very little direct pressure but the media is often in the firing line from politicians who accuse us generally - they usually accuse all newspapers in South Africa - of being too critical of government and of the governing party especially. A few months ago for example, one of the papers in our group - Citi Press - became the direct target of attacks by the governing party after it published on its website, an image of a painting that depicted the President in a way that was an assault to his dignity ...showed the President’s private parts ...

The newspaper published the image of the painting on its website because it was news and the governing party launched protest marches in the streets against the newspaper and eventually forced the newspaper to take the image down.

That happens occasionally. Generally however, they say we do not give government credit when it is due. I think that the media industry is vibrant and should be very critical and as one of the speakers said yesterday, democracy grows and is strengthened when the media is vigorous and do not hold back too much. So I think for me it is safer to have a media that is too critical than to have one that is too passive and compliant.

What is the most challenging situation you have ever found yourself in?

I will say that the 2011 election in Nigeria was quite challenging in the north because we encountered some election violence in Daura, near the border with Niger in the far north and there were some quite problematic road blocks by protesters and other things which we had to navigate but we were eventually able to get through safely in the end. Also in 2006, I covered the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I went there a few times and there was a lot of trouble in the west of the country, in Kinshasa especially. There were serious concerns of safety there then but it was an extremely exciting and important story. I regret to say that since then, most media organisations have cut back on international coverage because it is expensive and in the case of my company, we had a network of foreign offices then which we do have anymore because we cannot afford it and so foreign assignments are very rare these days. It is still a trend you see in western countries and in many countries in Africa that have newspapers that could once afford to have correspondents abroad, they cannot afford to do so anymore. There were some challenging stories; they were great but now I am using that experience (I hope) in my office job.

Giving the challenges posed by online content distribution on publisher revenue, do you see a future in which publishers will reach a consensus on charging for digital content?

I don’t think we should form a consensus because the markets in which we all operate in are different. There are some publications that have had huge success in offering content for free and selling advertising. We saw some examples of that here. And there seems to be a trend towards creating content that we believe people are willing to pay for and then putting up paywalls and asking them for money. It was beautifully put by one of the speakers who quoted the Joker from Batman who said “if you do something well, don’t do it for free”. So the challenge is to do it really, really well, then charge for it.

What is the level of trust the ordinary South African has in the press and how much is that a factor in the operation of the industry?

I think the level of trust is very high. The biggest selling newspaper in my country is a tabloid newspaper called the Daily Sun which is also under Media24, the company I work for and the Daily Sun has taken it upon themselves to fix some of the problems in their readers’ lives so they for example a ‘Mr. Fix-it’ who is a guy who they send out to people’s houses to fix things that they can’t afford to fix, whether it is taps or leaking roofs and they do a lot of advocacy work, lobbying local councillors and politicians to address service delivery problems in people’s neighbourhoods and they are hugely respected for that and they play a very active role in people’s lives, they fight very hard to remain relevant.

When earlier this year there was the Protection of Information Bill that is in fact about to be passed through Parliament as law, some of the more draconian conditions in this law were removed by Parliament after a large turnout of ordinary people who were not journalists participated in protest marches across the country to fight the law. They were not journalists but the law would have affected the media’s ability to do their job and that showed to me that there is an understanding among many South Africans that we do something that matters to them and that in the large instance, serves their best interests. This is why they were willing to fight for it.

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