I had the chance to travel to South Africa in April for our twice-yearly PRGN meetings. HWB Communications, our network partner in Cape Town, arranged to have Chris Bishop, managing editor, Forbes Africa, as one of our speakers. It was an amazing talk, not only because he is an editor with Forbes, but the fact that as a journalist, his life and the lives of his reporters are constantly in danger.
Today’s #MediaMonday gives us some South African perspective on what we in America consider an unalienable right: The First Amendment.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Chris Bishop has been a journalist with either print media or television TV for more than 40 years — many of them in countries north and south of the Sahara.
Prior to joining Forbes, Chris hosted several business and current affairs programs on CNBC Africa. He’s a former BBC correspondent and has worked and travelled extensively in Africa and spent time training journalists for Sudan’s national television. His career also includes stints as senior executive producer of SABC TV News in South Africa and as head of news and current affairs at Botswana TV.
In 1998, he won the Sir David Beattie Award for excellence in journalism for uncovering a plot to assassinate the Queen of England during a royal tour. Last year Chris won the Sanlam Award for excellence in financial broadcast journalism.
Chris’ talk was so impactful I want you to have the chance to read it in its entirety. I am providing some excerpts below, but there is a link below for the full speech as well. Take a look.
WHO AM I?
My name is Chris Bishop and journalism is my life. It has taken me all over the world and I am lucky to have seen all of its continents before I was 30.
My father is a journalist, so is my wife and so is my sister. My father was the biggest influence by far in terms of ethics and my choice of career. When he used to drive me to school when I was a child he was always happy. I asked him why one day and he said: “I don’t know where I am going today; I don’t know who I am going to speak to or what I am going to do.” You can’t beat doing something you love and getting paid for it. Nearly 40 years later, with 31 years in journalism, I agree.
I am very proud to say my father is still getting up early in the morning and is a court reporter in Worcester, England, at the age of 77. I always tell him he writes like a man a quarter of his age.
One of his great influences on me was his principled stand on journalism and press freedom. It was he, not my college lecturers who taught me about free speech and protecting your sources.
This is the issue I want to put in context for you today – Press Freedom. Especially in a year that began with 52 journalists sitting in African jails. If any of you have been in an African jail you will know it is not a pleasant experience. I know I was incarcerated twice in Africa for merely filming on the street. I can tell you there is little worse than that moment when the police take your belt and laces and that door locks behind you and you realize you don’t know when it will open again.
Support for Press freedom is something I am having to think deeply about now as I am guiding young journalists as an editor once again.
For this vibrant economic world to take shape in Africa, we need investment, we need democracy and we need freedom in all its forms – especially press freedom. I think the Arab spring across North Africa showed a lot of complacent leaders that they could no longer turn a deaf ear to the voice of the people.
To put press freedom in context. I worked in London for the BBC. We used to complain about press freedom back then even though we had more than we knew what to do with. Sure, the British state can be as secretive as any other, but on 90 percent of the stories we covered you could shove a microphone at a cabinet minister or head of state without being hustled away. Questions were answered in writing. Politicians did have a modicum of accountability and often resigned over their mistakes. If a minister issued threats to journalists you could laugh back knowing nothing was going to happen to you and further that the news desk would be keen to run the story even bigger because of the ruffled feathers.
When I came to Africa and started work for the BBC and later the SABC across southern Africa I saw what life was like without that kind of press freedom. All too often there were people, often armed, standing in the way of the news and newsmakers. (Zambia Kenneth Kaunda)
The philosophy in most of the African countries that I worked in was that what government was doing was not anyone’s business. The idea of politicians and civil servants being paid servants of the people appeared to be alien to many in power. And we were shoved around and often vilified for our pains. I have been accused of almost everything by the powers that be in this continent – an ex-solider, a neo colonialist, a spy, a former policeman, a Zimbabwean farm owner, a disgruntled ex- farm owner – you name it, it was thrown at me. In reply I offered up the best weapon in the journalist’s armory – a pair of clean hands. On the advice of my dear father, I have never carried a card or waved a flag for anyone.
Life without a free press meant there were rumours everywhere; debate was undercover and unhealthy; you could lie about anything and as long as you knew the right people few would ever know. It stifled debate and crippled progressive thinking. Stories in the press were often governed by political influence. I used to watch people reading the government owned newspapers the day after unrest or a riot and watch them laughing at the official version. Is that a way to win over your people I ask? You can fool some of the people some of the time…..but not all of the people all of the time. If anything, the liberation of Africa proves that the people of this continent can’t be fooled for ever. I wonder why new governments try.
I am glad to be standing here able to say and think what I feel without fear nor favour. No one is going to follow me home, no one is going to threaten me. No one is going to try to assault me for my view. That, my friends, is one of the fruits of press freedom.
I leave you with the words of Murray Gurfein one of the judges in the famous Watergate case in the United States. For the young people among you, it was a case in the 1970s where journalists uncovered political skulduggery surrounding former President Richard Nixon that eventually brought down his administration.
“A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the right of the people to know.”
I am proud to say I am getting more cantankerous and obstinate by the day.
To read a transcript of Chris’ entire speech, click here.