Ferial Haffajee

Ferial Haffajee is one of the judges of CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Awards

Ferial Haffajee was the first black female editor of a national newspaper in South Africa.

Currently editor-in-chief at City Press, and previously editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, Haffajee is an advocate for press freedom and women's empowerment.

She spoke to Journalism.co.uk about her role as a judge for CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Awards, her rise to the top of journalism in South Africa and about media freedom as we mark World Press Freedom Day.

Celebrating African journalism


Haffajee has been a judge of the African Journalist Awards for the past five years.

"I wanted to get a pan-African perspective on journalism across the continent and that is exactly what it has given me," she told Journalism.co.uk.

"I can speak with some authority when people say nonsense like 'it's not the African way to uncover corruption' or that 'there's an African journalism and a western journalism'.

I can speak with some authority when people say nonsense like 'it's not the African way to uncover corruption' or that 'there's an African journalism and a western journalism'.Ferial Haffajee
"I've come to understand that those are often just excuses for harming journalists' freedom."

Last year saw the award go to Fatima Noor, then 24, who risked her life investigating members of Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab.

Entries have now closed for the 2012 awards and this year's winners are due to announced at a gala ceremony in Lusaka, Zambia, in July.

Haffajee said that this year has seen "excellent contributions" on stories from North African countries that experienced events of the Arab Spring, including submissions from journalists based in Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.

There have also been entries based on a change in government in Cote d'Ivoire, from Nigeria, and reporting on the Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia. "All of those subjects have been well-tackled by African journalists," Haffajee said.

"The awards are lovely for me as I can see that the burgeoning of free media that we have seen in South Africa is really a continent-wide experience."

A campaigning career

Haffajee has been a journalist for 23 years, fulfilling a childhood dream she had while growing up in a working-class home in South Africa.

"We were the first generation who could go to university and like most kids of my background in South Africa, my parents very much wanted me to become a professional. My mum would have loved it if I had chosen the law instead, but really from a very young age I wanted to be a journalist.

"I saw it as a career that could really help to bring about the end of apartheid."

I saw it as a career that could really help to bring about the end of apartheidFerial Haffajee
She studied African literature and law and honed her journalism skills by "being thrown in at the deep end" on the Mail and Guardian, then "a small, campaigning and very poor newspaper".

As a reporter and later as an editor she has pushed at investigative journalism and has uncovered major stories, winning a number of awards.

She was part of a group of journalists who helped to bring in media freedom in the last years of apartheid, she said.

"In subsequent years I guess we have held the new government's feet to the fire while also wanting to be part of building a new country."

In addition to editing City Press, Haffajee also sits on the board of the International Press Institute and the World Editors Forum. In South Africa she chairs the ethics and diversity committee of the National Editors Forum, which she sees as part of a role to "help train the next generation of women leaders in the media".

A keen tweeter, Haffajee campaigns for media freedom 140 characters at a time.

"I love journalism on Twitter and I love how social media has made the sphere even more competitive and the craft a little bit wiser. It's been nice living through that revolution as well as the political revolution in my own country."

One of the things she has done to champion a range of voices is edit two books. She conceived and edited the Little Black Book, South Africa's comprehensive book of black leaders across the country. She is also editor of the annual Book of South African women, which features 300 leaders across the private, public and civil society sector, from architects to teachers to engineers to political activists.

"We kept getting told by reporters, writers and editors that there just weren't any women to interview," she said, explaining how she came up with the idea.

I think Africa is a finally a place of hope and you see that reflected in its journalismFerial Haffajee
The book acts as a source for journalists and "has become an institution in South Africa".

Has being woman or being non-white ever got in her way? After a slight pause she says: "I was very lucky to be born at a time when the government passed a constitution which included equality for women and for black people as key components of its transformation exercise.

"Without that I doubt whether I would have seen my dreams come true because I think ours is still a very male-dominated and quite a macho craft."

"I was part of the International Women's Media Foundation study on women in journalism globally and the numbers are appalling."

World Press Freedom day

Haffajee has been a long time campaigner for media freedom. In 2006, when editor of Mail & Guardian, she was threatened after republishing controversial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. At the time she said she felt she was being targeted personally because she is herself a Muslim.

So what does she hope for this year? "I really want to highlight what is happening in Nigeria, the Sahel, Ethiopia, South Sudan."

Looking at the entries for this year's African Journalist Awards she says that she is encouraged by the brighter stories too.

"It's been really lovely this year to see the way that journalists have dealt with the small, touching human interest stories.

"It's nice that they are not only consumed by horror and famine, but that it's a marker of a growing continent.

"I think Africa is a finally a place of hope and you see that reflected in its journalism."

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