Yesterday, I learned from Facebook that Wara Fana, a South African journalist, died recently after contracting covid-19. He was forty-five, and had two children. He wrote for national publications and founded Skawara News, a community newspaper in the Eastern Cape, his home province, that reports in the local Xhosa language. “I see myself as an activist in my community, as someone who’s promoting our identity, our culture, and I’m trying to promote democracy in its finest form,” he once said. “If I won the Pulitzer prize, I would make sure that every community in South Africa has got a newspaper in their own mother tongue.” He also chaired a group for independent publishers, and mentored young reporters. “He was frequently praised, even by politicians,” Thamsanqa Mbovane, a reporter for GroundUp, said. “Wara held his reporters to high standards. I remember him rightly scolding a young journalist who plagiarised an article. ‘You will get us all fired,’ he told the reporter. ‘Don’t do it again.’”
The news was particularly sad for me because I knew Wara. In 2018, I spent some time reporting in South Africa; one of the stories I worked on was about land reform, and a friend put me in touch with Wara, saying that he might be able to help. Wara instantly invited me to come and stay with him at his home in Qamata, the small Eastern Cape community where he was born, and I accepted. We met at a mall in East London, a city a couple of hours away, and drove to Qamata together; he told me pretty much everything I needed to know for my reporting on the drive, then spent the next few days introducing me to sources and the social life of the area. He sat with me while I interviewed a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, who spent time in the prison on Robben Island; we then walked up the road, under an immaculate starry sky, and drank beer in the front yard of another acquaintance, where Wara took a photo of me sitting on a giant, rusty tractor. One day, we went to pick up an edition of a national paper that, by chance, we were both slated to have stories in. We ate fries as we flicked through the pages. Wara’s story was in; mine wasn’t. (It appeared the following week.) In the car on the way back to East London, we argued about politics. Later, he called me, worried that I was upset. I wasn’t at all.
Wara is not the only South African journalist to have died from covid over the past year or so. Last May, Lungile Tom, a cameraman with the broadcaster eNCA, died in a hospital; his employer described him as “a man with mischief in his eyes and joy in his heart.” In August, S’busiso Mseleku died at the age of fifty-nine; a longtime sports reporter and editor, he had recently quit his job to set up his own, eponymous platform. The same month, two staffers at the public South African Broadcasting Corporation—Tumelo Matloha, an editor, and Michael Conradie, a logistics manager—died. In March 2021, Karima Brown, a prominent print and TV journalist, died. In the eighties, Brown was active in the fight against apartheid as a supporter of the African National Congress, though she would later criticize the party after it came to power, as well as criticizing its rivals. In 2019, she won a court case against the party of Julius Malema, a firebrand left-wing politician, after he published Brown’s phone number on Twitter; his supporters threatened her with rape and death. “She had a big personality and didn’t shy away from voicing her opinions,” Norman Munzhelele, Brown’s colleague at eNCA, said. “Karima believed in hope.”
In many other countries, covid has hit the ranks of the press even harder. As I noted in late April, when the virus was spreading like wildfire in India, many reporters were among its victims—according to one database, an average of four Indian journalists died every day in the month of May; according to another, nearly five hundred Indian media workers have died of covid in total, many of them after contracting the virus while working. The Press Emblem Campaign, a media group based in Switzerland, recently reported that more than two hundred media workers died in Brazil between March 2020 and the end of last month; since then, at least eleven more have died, including Domingos Fraga of Record TV, Carlos Bueno de Moraes of Diário de Goiás, and Ednaldo Guedes, a journalist in the state of Paraíba, all of whom died last week. The Press Emblem Campaign believes that, all told, at least fifteen hundred reporters have succumbed to covid in seventy-seven different countries. In addition to India and Brazil, journalist deaths in Peru and Mexico have also surpassed one hundred, per the group’s figures.
Journalists, of course, are just people, vulnerable to the same viral waves—not to mention covid politics—as everyone else as they ebb and flow around the world. South Africa, for instance, is currently experiencing a rapid surge in covid cases; according to the BBC, the country has administered less than one covid dose per hundred members of the population, a figure ninety-four points lower than the US. But, if journalists in rapidly-normalizing countries need a particularly acute reminder of the ongoing ravages of the pandemic, and the global nature of the story, they need look no further than their colleagues worldwide.
Wara had been active in responding to the pandemic. He was involved with a media relief fund administered by the South African National Editors’ Forum, helping distribute more than two million South African rands to journalists who were hit financially by covid. Last March, as societies around the world went into lockdown, Wara tried to call me to talk about the impact of covid in my area. I was busy and couldn’t reply; I said we should talk soon, though we never did. I wish we had. I messaged with Wara once more after that, last June, when he told me about a range of stories he was working on, and asked me where overseas he might be able to pitch them. He told me then that he was feeling motivated. “I am loving work again,” he wrote.
Below, more on the pandemic:
- South Africa: Journalists working in South Africa have sometimes had difficulties reporting on the pandemic. Last March, the government introduced regulations criminalizing disinformation about the pandemic and the official response; then, in May 2020, Paul Nthoba, the editor of a community newspaper in the town of Ficksburg, fled to Lesotho, a neighboring country, after South African police repeatedly beat him in connection with his coverage of lockdown enforcement. (For more on covid and press freedom around the world, check out this map that CJR published last year.)
- Brazil: On Monday, Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, told a reporter who questioned his frequent failure to wear a mask to “shut up” and railed against the reporter’s employer, Globo Group. “You are creeps,” he said. “You practice rogue journalism, which doesn’t help at all. You destroy the Brazilian family, destroy the Brazilian religion.” He also called Globo Group “shitty,” and criticized CNN Brazil for its coverage of a recent demonstration protesting his pandemic response. AFP has more.
- The US, I: While many countries around the world struggle to obtain and administer covid vaccines, the US is struggling, in some places, with demand. Yesterday, Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, told reporters that the country will miss the Biden administration’s target of vaccinating seventy percent of American adults with at least one dose by the July 4 holiday; that benchmark has already been attained amid people over thirty, with vaccination rates tailing off among younger age groups.
- The US, II: Claire Atkinson reports, for Insider, that management at the New York Times want staffers to work from the office at least three days a week beginning in September. Michael Slackman, a top editor at the paper, told staffers in a memo that office work is important in building “a stronger culture and prioritizing equity, so exceptions will be rare.”
Other notable stories:
- Breaking this morning: Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, will cease publishing, both in print and online, by tomorrow, a week after authorities invoked a draconian security law imposed by China to raid the paper’s newsroom, arrest members of its leadership, and freeze its assets. The paper had previously said that, due to the latter punishment, it would struggle to sustain itself financially for more than a few weeks. Management cited employee safety and staffing levels as reasons for the quick closure. “Apple Daily thanks its readers, subscribers, advertisers, and Hongkongers for their love and support in the past 26 years,” they said. “Farewell and take care.” Also today, police arrested Yeung Ching-kee, an Apple Daily editorialist. For more context, read Monday’s newsletter.
- Yesterday was primary day in New York City. In the mayor’s race, the Democrat Eric Adams opened up a wide lead in first-preference votes under the city’s ranked-choice voting system, but the final result may remain unclear for weeks as voters’ lower picks are tallied. Adams nonetheless struck a jubilant note at his election-night party, declaring that “social media does not pick a candidate, people on social security pick a candidate”; he also advised “younger reporters” that “Twitter is not academic research,” though two reporters—Ross Barkan and David Freedlander, who recently profiled Adams for New York—weren’t allowed in the room to hear it. (The Adams camp dubiously blamed space constraints.) Meanwhile, Andrew Yang—the race’s one-time frontrunner and media darling—was so far back, in fourth place on first preferences, that he conceded defeat.
- Mark Mazzetti, Julian E. Barnes, and Michael LaForgia, of the Times, report that in 2017, four Saudi operatives who were involved in a crackdown on dissent—and would be implicated, the following year, in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi—took part in paramilitary training in the US with a private contractor approved by the State Department. The contractor described the training as defensive, and there is no evidence that they or officials knew of the operatives’ roles in the crackdown, the Times reports; still, the training “shows how intensely intertwined the United States has become with an autocratic nation even as its agents committed horrific human rights abuses.”
- A trio of media-job developments from Sara Fischer, of Axios: Rich Lowry is stepping down as the editor of National Review’s print magazine to focus on strategy, with Ramesh Ponnuru set to replace him. Steve Scully—the longtime C-SPAN journalist who was suspended, last year, for claiming falsely that he had been hacked on Twitter—is leaving for a comms role at the Bipartisan Policy Center. And veterans of Quartz and the Times launched Charter, a media and services company focused on the future of work.
- In other media-jobs news, ProPublica named Robin Sparkman, the CEO of StoryCorps, as its president and co-CEO, replacing Richard Tofel, the site’s first employee and founding general manager who announced his retirement earlier this year. Elsewhere, Emmanuel Felton, of BuzzFeed, will be race and ethnicity reporter at the Washington Post. And Melanie Zanona, a Congressional reporter at Politico, is joining CNN.
- For Popular Information, Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria investigated how outlets like the Daily Wire, a right-wing site, aggregate local-news stories, give them “an inaccurate or incendiary spin,” and ride the results to “massive engagement on Facebook” while the original source “gets a tiny fraction of engagement.” Investing in local journalism only for others to monetize it, Legum and Zekeria note, is “not a formula for economic success.”
- In her newsletter, HEATED, Emily Atkin spotlighted the work of Chase Woodruff, an environmental policy reporter for Colorado Newsline who reviewed recent local news coverage of a major heatwave in the state and recorded whether or not it mentioned the climate crisis. Of the 149 stories that Woodruff logged, only six did so.
- To amplify the stories of Melvin and Néstor, a father and son separated at the border by the Trump administration, NPR’s Lilly Quiroz and Joel Rose produced audio and text reporting in both English and Spanish. Rather than translate directly, each version of the story features different reporting; the Spanish audio runs longer than the English audio.
- And if you thought a New York Times article about moray eels wouldn’t be a media story, you’d be wrong. See, the headline’s a dream, but you’re reading, not dreaming, signore. Here are the receipts that, in media tweets, it’s a story.