World Press Freedom Day is being commemorated today under extraordinary circumstances never experienced before. Journalists pursuing their calling to inform the public no matter the often draconian risks they face specific to their own circumstances, are for the first time, daily, facing a single common and deadly threat across the globe.

The coronavirus, better known as COVID-19, has swept to every corner of the world community. Daily our journalists (along with all frontline workers) brave this invisible and highly contagious threat at the risk of their own health, and potentially that of their loved ones, to bring us the truth of the devastating impact of this pandemic.

We have seen colleagues get infected and workplaces having been sanitized and remote working options become the order of the day. This in addition to the continued onslaught against press freedom that manifests itself sometimes unknowingly and globally in some of the worst human rights violations imaginable.

Under the South African landscape media freedom remains protected as a constitutional mandate. Freedom of expression and media freedom is a post-1994 prerogative that shines a light on how journalists should be treated in our democracy.

But given the shifts of power politically, economically and at the community level, we have seen our journalists even those at the SABC come under fire in these trying times under Cover-19. It forces us all to remain vigilant to the challenges faced by all journalists at the coal face in recent weeks:

  • A photo-journalist in Cape Town was forced to surrender his assignment under lockdown after ground forces (police and army);
  • SABC journalists came under in the Eastern Cape while covering a service delivery protest and one had to be hospitalised;
  • An SABC crew had to whisk away by police from after a community held them hostage demanding improved service delivery and living conditions;
  • In our courts – journalists have been prevented from covering certain stories;
  • Online attacks and threats continue with journalists especially women journalists being trolled and threatened.

Of greater concern is the economic devastation caused to journalism by this pandemic. Across the board in media advertising revenue has been slashed, causing media entities to look at cost-cutting mechanisms under Cover-19 with trimming of salaries and in some instances the non-renewal of freelance contracts in a bid to save jobs and other cost-cutting mechanisms.

But the worst case scenario is the possible closure of reliable and traditional media entities including the Mail and Guardian and others. In the magazine industry, the pioneering Associated Media Publishing entity has been forced to close shop. While critical watchdog bodies including the South Africa National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) has called on media entities to be more creative and look to new ways of doing business to save journalism.

But it’s clear that we are facing an uphill battle. The way we work in the industry has changed and remote working for all, including innovate online reporting has become a way of life.

So today on Press Freedom Day 2020, we pay to tribute to all frontline journalists – those we know, to those who are unseen, and those who find themselves in dark prison cells (across the globe). Your commitment to your calling is worthy of the highest tributes, always.

Mary Papayya is the Acting Media Freedom Chair of SANEF and sits on the SA Press Council. She writes in her personal capacity.