The journalists we’ve spoken with have alluded to the sense that South Africans don’t necessarily see themselves as part of the African continent. And therefore, there’s often a scarcity in the amount of information about the rest of the region, and more broadly, Africa as a whole. Journalists joke about the perception among South Africans that “news stops at the Limpopo River.”
Paula Fray, at the Inter Press Service’ South African branch, noted that the background, the context and the analysis is often missing in articles that are published by local media outlets.
She says that journalists, paid pennies in comparison to the already-measly salaries of journalists in the United States, don’t have the time, motivation or energy to take their stories one step further, and this means reporting is often based largely—if not solely—on press releases.
As she described her version of the state of journalism in South Africa—and throughout the continent as a whole—a knowing smile tweaked my lips. Only because I felt like I could already relate to her frustration. I’d seen it first-hand, in Dar es Salaam and to a lesser extent in Nairobi, where reporters eagerly rushed back to the newsroom to file their stories on time in order to ensure that they would receive their daily commission. Sometimes, this was before my sometimes-overly-critical (and overly ambitious) self thought they had the whole story. I also remember journalists unabashedly accepting brown envelopes.
The first time a government employee handed me a brown envelope at a press conference I had no clue as to what it concealed. In my naiveté, I expected to open it and find another press release. Instead, a note for 10,000 shillings fell out (calm down, it’s only the equivalent of about $10). Still, this wasn’t chump change to either my fellow reporters or me, as I considered the forty to fifty journalists who had just filed out of the room, each with a parchment-paper envelope in hand. Although math has never been my forte, I calculated that the government had just doled out approximately $500.
My fellow reporter explained the obvious—the 10,000 shillings were meant as a bribe of sorts, a tool to encourage journalists to publish articles “favorable” to the government. But I didn’t understand why. After all, it had been a rather uneventful press conference, held to announce the percentage of aspiring teachers who had passed the necessary exams; why the need to offer a bribe? I never quite figured it out, but this wouldn’t be the last time someone offered me an envelope.
On the eve of Day One at City Press, I wonder what I’ll discover about the state of journalism in South Africa.
And no, I didn’t accept the bribe.