Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Press freedom important for quality journalism
Author: Gawie Botma
Published: 04/05/2021

​​Monday (3 May) was World Press Freedom Day. In an opinion piece for Cape Times, Dr Gawie Botma (Department of Journalism) tries to answer the following questions: When does information become journalism? and What is the relationship between journalism and press freedom?

  • Read Botma's article below or click here for the piece as published. 

The theme for this year's World Press Freedom Day (3 May), “Information is a public good", invites the following questions: When does information become journalism? and What is the relationship between journalism and press freedom? This article explores South African newspaper history in search for answers.

The first newspaper in (what is today part of) South Africa was The Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser / Kaapse Stads Courant en Afrikaansche Berighter, a bilingual weekly first published in the Cape Colony under British occupation in 1800. Although published by a private firm (whose many commercial dealings included a stake in the lucrative slave trade), the newspaper (Gazette, for short) was “under government sanction" from the start.

The press and newspaper, therefore, was not “free", a fact recognized and lamented by contemporary observers who were familiar with a growing newspaper industry in Europe and North America, but not in the “colonies" until later in the 19th century. The press, it was argued by colonial authorities at that time of constant European conflicts and wars, was potentially an inspiring, educational, uplifting instrument, but it also enabled the spread of revolutionary ideas among the populace, which could threaten the status quo. In other words, some, but not all, information was seen as a public good in the early 19th century. The authorities then, like today, controlled and tried to monopolize flows of information to ensure that only the information they regarded as good reached the public.

Current scholars in liberal constitutional democracies like South Africa, however, often do not consider information generated in repressive political environments – which includes the content of the Gazette – as journalism. Our current understanding is that journalism involves the free circulation of useful information, packaged as news, among citizens. Ideally, journalism will enable citizens to exercise public and private rights and fulfil obligations. Journalism, any South African journalism student will tell you, requires independence from government control and censorship, which was obviously not the case with the Gazette.

But is political control and influence the only potential disqualifier of journalism? What about commercial interests?

Besides the prominent publication of government proclamations and notices – which arguably also played a public service role – a major part of the weekly content of the Gazette was taken up by private commercial advertisements. The Gazette from the start had something in common with current models of journalism: it was paid for by advertisers and sponsors and had a profit motive.

But the claim of the Gazette to journalism does not end there, because snippets of international and local news were included regularly, albeit rather randomly. News content taken from international newspapers was included regularly, on which the Gazette would sometimes briefly comment, while local news and occurrences were covered under various headings and according to topics which vaguely resemble the much later diversification of journalism practice into “beats".

In other words, despite its rudimentary form and shortcomings the Gazette circulated information for the public good, paid for by advertisers, in a format and manner which is recognizable as a newspaper even today. Its motivation for providing this service was not altruistic, but neither is much of what is considered journalism today. Perhaps, therefore, the Gazette deserves more credit and attention from a journalistic perspective?

Even if the contribution of the Gazette to journalism is underemphasized, as some scholars do, because of its checkered past – a combination of overt government involvement and the connection of its private owners to slavery – it still illustrates the uneasy boundary between the provision of public information and journalism. It also shows that, from the beginning, journalism, as it struggled to emerge, was situated between the state and the marketplace. Depending on the time and place, one can be more dominant than the other, but the poles remain in place, which means that absolute press freedom does not exist.

As the Gazette indicates, journalism is able to emerge even from adverse conditions, like the authoritarian regimes of the colonial and apartheid past and the neoliberal commodified society of the present where information is produced in abundance, often without purpose. The Gazette in fact illustrates when information becomes journalism. It happens not simply because of a specific ownership structure, financial model or even public service motive, but when the content it provides serves society and its citizens, even despite itself.

History shows that journalism emerges when information in the public interest is provided, which means that journalism fades when information is useless. Relative levels of press freedom, from both political and economic interests, influence the quality of journalism. But journalism is possible even without a high degree of press freedom, while a press which is considered free could provide information which is not in the public interest. 

*Dr Gawie Botma is a senior lecturer in the journalism department of the faculty of arts and social sciences at Stellenbosch University.