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UJ seminar series reflects on 30 Years of Democracy, examines media narratives of South Africa

Over the course of South Africa (SA)’s three decades of democracy, the media has played a significant role in shaping public discourse and opinion, yet there remains room for improvement. In a bid to examine the media’s role, the University of Johannesburg (UJ)’s Sociology, Anthropology, and Development Studies departments hosted a seminar titled “Framing Tough Conversations about SA Democracy: The Role of the Media” on Wednesday, 14th February 2024.

The seminar tackled issues such as anti-intellectualism, gender disparities, and corporate influence, emphasising the need for journalists to diversify voices, question prevailing narratives, and prioritise fact-checking, especially during the upcoming electoral season. It featured perspectives from Ylva Rodny Gumede, Senior Director of the Division for Internationalisation and a Professor in the School of Communication at UJ, as well as insights from the producers of The Big Debate, Ben Cashdan and Nolwazi Tusini.

Prof Rodny Gumede remarked that looking at the media from a transformation perspective, significant progress has been made. “We originated from a history devoid of media freedom. The transformation journey commenced in the 1990s, focusing on embracing freedom of speech and the public service ethos of embracing diverse voices,” she said.

“While strides have been made in transforming ownership and content, digitalisation has brought about fragmentation, with social media creating new news platforms. While new voices have emerged, some traditional ones have been silenced, and intellectualism is being overshadowed by political noise.”

Prof Rodny Gumede also cautioned against overlooking the significance of nurturing intellectual discourse and ensuring the inclusion of diverse voices in shaping the broader political narrative, despite the presence of a strong news media landscape and advanced technology.

The Big Debate’s producers, Ben Cashdan and Nolwazi Tusini, emphasised the need to diversify voices to challenge mainstream narratives.

Mr Cashdan stressed the vital role of media freedom in society, highlighting programmes like The Big Debate in South Africa as essential vehicles for the promotion thereof. He warned against conflating media freedom with deregulation and diversification, expressing concern that the latter might lead to the capture of media by new and diverse interests.

Ms Tusini echoed this sentiment, noting how the rise of new media has led to decreased revenue and significant job losses, resulting in a younger and less experienced workforce in newsrooms.

“Framing Tough Conversations about SA Democracy: The Role of the Media” marked the beginning of a series of seminars titled the “30 Years of Democracy Seminar Series,” spanning the next eight weeks. Throughout this period, a diverse range of topics will be explored, encompassing internationalism, geopolitics, climate and energy crises, and opportunities for economic justice.

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