Renowned South African journalist and City Press editor, Ferial Haffajee, is in line to be awarded the prestigious International Press Freedom Award for her dedication in the field of journalism. The award recognizes those journalists who remain steadfast in their work despite facing criticism, threats of violence, and even censorship. She will share the award with Burmese journalist Aung Zaw, Iranian freelancer Siamak Ghaderi, and Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar.
Haffajee became South Africa’s first female editor of colour, when she took the reins at the Mail and Guardian in 2004. There she made headlines for her publication of groundbreaking and sometimes controversial stories, before resigning in 2009. Listed as one of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims, she has been a prominent journalistic figure in both pre and post-Apartheid South Africa.
Speaking to VOC’s Drivetime, Haffajee said she started in journalism purely as a means of activism, and securing a way to bring about an end to Apartheid. She reported on both sides of the country’s first democratic elections, describing them as “two completely different worlds”.
Under Apartheid, she said the industry had been extremely dangerous, with information hard to come by. This was in stark contrast to the present day, where there was a constitution that basically guaranteed the freedom of journalists.
“It would be almost like working in Ethiopia, the DRC, or Egypt today, which is very tough. I think today we are lucky enough to live in a very different universe, where we have promotion to access of information laws,” she said.
During her time as editor at the Mail and Guardian, Haffajee came under particular scrutiny for the paper’s publication of controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed (S.A.W). However, she said she had been toughened up on many such instances during her career, leading her to describe herself as a “free speech fundamentalist”.
“If your motive is not to harm, hurt or offend, and everybody is looking at those things anyway, and I think it is the duty of the media to create a debate around them,” she said.
Haffajee is also heavily involved in the Women in News (WIN) Programme, aimed at improving the rate of women leaders in the industry. Despite misconceptions that the field was one that was male dominated, she insisted this was not the case at City Press.
“I am happy to report that I do think the olden day’s picture of a newsroom dominated by smoking men with blue shirts and braces is largely over. It is a different place. I don’t say that it is completely change, but I do think there are changes afoot,” she said.
Addressing the award, she said it was an immense honour to be recognized in such a manner. However, she noted she would be using the ceremony as an opportunity to shine light on a number of concerning issues.
“In Ethiopia there is a young woman called Reeyot Alemu who is a journalist and she remains jailed, along with other colleagues. In neighboring Swaziland, there is a lovely editor I know called Bheki Makhubu, who is also in jail. And on our own presidents desk remains the secrecy bill, waiting to be passed into law,” she said.
Haffajee, along with the other recipients of the award, will be honored at a benefit dinner hosted by CNN journalist and TV host, Christiane Amanpour, on the 25th November. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)