Written by: William Bird

We are gathered today for the 2nd Isu Elihle awards!  Thank you all so much for being here.  I promise you if you knew the hard work and stress around making these happen you would share our joy at the fact that they are a reality.  But the good news is they are just starting.  In conversation with a person who has been involved in some of the biggest awards on our continent, she said these things only really take off after a few years, so next year we know they will be even better and we ask that you all come onboard with us and support them to make sure they are even bigger in 2018. We are looking for new partners, so chat to our team if you want to be part of the coolest media awards ever!

But before I get there.  We need to think about our context.

We find ourselves in interesting times, perhaps perilous and uncertain is a more apt description.  Globally, we have two lunatics in charge of arsenals of nuclear weapons. What’s scary isn’t so much that they have the power over these devices, it’s that both of them are like cartoon character villains in a James Bond type film – where we honestly don’t know how the other will react. This kind of global unease makes all our future uncertain.

But our two villains have something else in common – they both have a fond fancy for alternative facts.  Indeed, some of the classic North Korean propaganda films have made for amusing viewing. While fake news is not itself new – with dodgy and misinformation campaigns being centuries old – we do have the Donald to thank for its recent revival, where fake news is used to undermine credible media, to delegitimize and down grade debate and understanding.

Closer to home our challenges are similar, not in the form of nuclear arsenal of weapons, but we too have too many old leaders with bad hair, who are both out of touch with the people over whom they govern, and the changes to their societies that are happening as they seek to retain control, and indeed, as recent media freedom barometers indicate they too generally share a passionate dislike for quality journalism and media freedom.

It’s not just global politics that is uncertain but we are entering our fourth industrial revolution, or the machine age. We are witnessing an explosion of technology developments and A.I. things that will impact every aspect of our society.  Elon Musk of Tesla fame is warning of the need to regulate A.I. with catastrophic consequences if we don’t. A recent article by Jamie Bartlett, who has just completed a series on the digital age for the BBC, notes how in France analysts are saying that A.I. will make 10% of jobs completely redundant in the next ten years and that they need to plan for 40% of jobs to be done by a combination of people working with machines. So, in the next ten years 50% of jobs will be fundamentally altered. That’s not the future that’s now – are we ready for that?

I know that’s Europe, and we cannot guarantee the same will play out on our continent, for a bunch of different reasons, but we know that in some respects we can leap frog ahead – whether that’s good isn’t necessarily clear.  What is clear is that the changes are coming -despite many of our governments best efforts to hamper or delay change.  Those that aren’t like Kenya and Rwanda are seeing dramatic change already, so at least we have some working on our future as a continent.

Ironically, coming later to the digital party may just help our news media, as we may be able to learn enough from the failures around Europe and North America.  Perhaps, better than that many of our media on our continent are used to operating on shoe string budgets and producing news born of passion and necessity.

But there is something else that makes our continent different.  Our young people and more specifically our children.  According to a Unicef report from 2014, (https://www.unicef.org/publications/index_74751.html )

“over the next 35 years nearly 2 billion babies will be born in Africa, the continent’s population will double in size, and its under-18 population will increase by two thirds, to almost a billion children.”

Put differently, by 2050 Africa will be home to 2 in 5 of the world’s children! We are seeing a massive shift in the world’s child population towards Africa. Projections indicate that by 2050, around 40 per cent of all births, and about 40 per cent of all children, will be in Africa, up from about 10 per cent in 1950. So as much of the rest of the world gets older our continent is getting younger. The is a reality that could see us harness amazing potential or sink into a quagmire that makes hell look like a teddy bears picnic.

So, with that there are two things that I would like to focus on today: media and children – because both are fundamental to our societies future well-being. In addition to being fundamental to democracy the media serves as one of the most effective indicators of power in society.  We know through monitoring who has power in the media, and on a simple level, at least by knowing who speaks.  Conversely, we know who doesn’t have power by the absence of their voices. In the case of children, it is 8%. Children count even less than women.  So, these awards are about giving a voice to the voiceless, and challenging real power.  We are of course assuming that at least we are working towards a socially just series of societies with equality, dignity and rights for all. If on the other hand you are here for the dark forces who seek to control, be unaccountable and part of an elite – well this isn’t for you, please go join the happy hour at the Saxonwold Shebeen.

So, with an explosion of information, with the fourth industrial revolution on our doorstep, with a younger population, we should be focusing on improving access to information, on helping people understand their societies, and of course focusing on our children and the skills they will need.

Yeah right.  In many instances, we are seeing the exact opposite. As an example, we wanted to work in another Southern African country this year but had to hold off as the government in power said that us trying to give children critical media literacy skills would mean exposing them to news media propaganda.  In other words, we have governments who are scared of their own children being informed.  In South Africa, we have witnessed children being obliterated from the political agenda, from an office in the presidency in 1994 to an afterthought in department of social development.

Indeed, in media terms despite increasing access, we know children hardly feature in our news, an average of around 7% for Southern Africa.  This despite them being just under 50% of the population for Eastern and Southern Africa. Indeed, the situation of many of our children in our countries is a blight on our humanity on a scale grander than the biggest most corrupt scum bags we have and we have many of them!

Our journalism isn’t faring much better. Limits to media freedom are increasing, digital models are struggling, and we are witnessing a culling of journalists on a scale so grand it’s also Trumpian – that is to say it’s really huge, really big. As news rooms shrink, so journalists are expected to do more with less, quality suffers as does content diversity. At the same time the dark forces are strong, outnumbering journalists in almost every area, commercial and political interests are shifting the discourse and ethics are thrown out the window. Just ask Bell Pottinger

The thing is, children are special.  They are afforded extra protection in all our countries, through Conventions, Constitutions and Laws. Anyone here who has children will happily attest that the single most valuable thing in their lives are their children, on an individual level most of us bend over backwards just to make them happy, let alone protect them from harm. Journalism is special too, and good journalism is a necessary function of a democratic state.  Far too often however these equally essential issues are not brought together.

For the last decade MMA has been working to change this in Southern Africa.  Working with children and journalists here’s what we know:

  • Working with children is challenging and rewarding – I suspect as much as you will all be impressed by the stellar speakers we have today’s like our judges and Leanne (Manas), you are likely to be blown away by the words of some of the children we work with
  • Give them a chance and they will shine in manner that would warm the soul of the soulless. Our Children’s News Agency shows how children can report for mainstream media, while our work with digital skills show children can acquire skills to regulate their own internet usage.
  • Reporting on children is easily one of the most complex, challenging and rewarding areas of journalism. In our view, it makes almost all other areas look really easy. It’s why, for the last ten years we have been running the only course of its kind on our continent with Wits Journalism. It exposes mid-career journalists to the full spectrum of reporting on children, its challenges and diversity. If you haven’t done it you should.
  • The ethics are never easy. We have been doing MADs and GLADs for a decade now and yet, every Monday we still have intense debate over critical choices, we know how hard these things are, what we need are more thinking journalists and editors, not less

It was with this in mind that we came up with plan for the Isu Elihle awards.  Even though this is only the second year of running them, the idea was hatched over a decade ago, based on something similar in Brazil. Ahead of their time then, their time is now!

So, what makes them special?  Three things:

  1. Firstly, unlike most awards these reward thinking, and fresh ideas. So rather than simply assessing work already done these awards encourage journalists to think, to make links and tell new and fresh stories.  Our hope is that they will serve to inspire others, and even those who didn’t make the finals might go ahead and do their own stories anyway.  In other words, they are a positive way of increasing and improving the portrayal and participation of children in the media.
  2. Secondly, the children. We take meaningful children’s participation very seriously. It’s why we worked with them to help change our Press Code. It’s also why we worked with them to impact policy by making their own submission on combatting Hate Speech, and just next week we will be pulling their input together for a children’s submission on the revised editorial policies of the SABC.  In these awards children have equal standing as judges, so their views are taken as seriously as our other amazing judges.
  3. Thirdly, the awards cover Southern and Eastern Africa, which means that we can see how similar and different the lives of our children are on our continent a good lesson in humility for all of us. Ultimately then they seek to demonstrate the best we can be, by showing quality journalism for one of the most marginalized groups on our continent.

So, these awards, matter, not just because they are a great idea (ha-ha) but because they serve as a beacon of hope. They can help us achieve something Steve Biko referred to when he said, “in time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift—a more human face.”  In a time when so often we seem to have forgotten our humanity, our sense of kindness and empathy, these awards represent something different – and the people who entered – have demonstrated their desire to help show a not only a more human face, but a child friendly one, delivered through quality journalism.

(William Bird, MMA Director)