Well, the short answer is quite free. Indeed,
freedom of expression which is the core value of a free press is not only
highly valued but also given free rein in SA.Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â
But quite free does not mean
completely free, far from it and, in practice, there is a caveat that tolerance
of a free press by the authorities is highly variable. But I think it is safe
to say that South Africa has the freest press in Africa, though Freedom House
places Mali and Mauritius fractionally above South Africa in ranking media
freedom throughout the continent.
There is vigorous debate in the media about affairs of the day, sharp criticism
of government, opposition parties and other institutions and businesses. I do
not believe there is self-censorship on issues that really matter. Freedom of
the media is protected in the Constitution but my view is that the ruling
politicians pay lip service to it. Government officials have a very variable
appreciation of Press freedom and act accordingly. While ignorance is partly to
blame, I sense media freedom violations are carried out by officials who are
fully aware of the principle but seek to muzzle the media especially when they
fear the information the media wants to publish is likely to be highly
embarrassing because of the corruption, mal-administration or misconduct that
it will reveal. Government officials and especially high ranking politicians
demonstrate great sensitivity to press criticism and from the president
downwards have on occasion resorted to denigrating critical journalists for
“lack of responsibility'', racism and besmirching South Africa's good name.
Recently this sensitivity has manifested itself in accusations that journalists
are trying to remove the government from power.
An example of these attacks on the media appeared in the presidential website,
ANC Today, recently when it presented a scathing view of the press. After
reference to a claimed inaccurate press report, it stated that “it confirmed
the message that the readers of our newspapers are well advised to treat
everything that is published with the greatest scepticism, because, in all
likelihood, it might be false. For a long time already, we have complained
about this phenomenon, according to which some in the media obviously
understand that `freedom of the press' means freedom of the press to invent
There is no record of the ANC taking this complaint to the Press Ombudsman
where its accuracy could be tested.
There have been a string of cases where officials have used various methods to
muzzle the media. There has been direct physical action taken to bar reporters
and photographers from courts, demonstrations, or other activities and, worse,
the resorting to what I call judicial censorship by bringing applications
before the High Courts to interdict newspapers from publishing certain types of
information on various grounds usually related to intrusions into the privacy
of people, or detracting from their dignity.
Individually, these muzzling actions do not make much of an impact, but when compiled
into a list it constitutes a quite formidable indictment of official
restrictive conduct. Here is a list I have drawn up:
Gagging Sunday newspapers from publishing the Danish cartoons before the
editors had decided how they would treat them in their papers.
Gagging the Mail and Guardian from running the “Oilgate'' scandal —
fraudulent use of state money intended for the purchase of oil to fund the
ANC's election campaign. Later the government subpoenaed the Mail and
Guardian's online host, M-Web, requiring the company to deliver records of a
bank statement related to “Oilgate'', published on the Mail and Guardian
Attempt by the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions to obtain an
interdict preventing the Mail and Guardian from running a story about Police
Commissioner Jackie Selebi's relationship with alleged criminals Brett Kebble
and Glenn Agliotti. Dismissed with costs.
Cape High Court confirmed a magistrate's order compelling Daily Voice's news
editor Gasant Abarder to testify in a court case about a public meeting he had
covered where a trade union official is alleged to have made defamatory remarks
about another person. Abarder granted leave to appeal.
Mail & Guardian interdicted from publishing the Marcus-Sisulu commission report
on a black list of commentators drawn up by the SABC. It won with costs an
attempt by SABC to have the M&G report removed from its website.
Mail & Guardian receives an interim interdict preventing it from publishing
allegations of fraud and misconduct by MTN SA CEO. Six days later interim
interdict dismissed with costs.
The Supreme Court of Appeal refused an application by the SABC to televise
Shabir Shaik's appeal proceedings in court; the decision was upheld by
Cape High Court upheld a Treatment Action Campaign application for gagging
against vitamin entrepreneur Matthias Rath who accused TAC of acting as a front
for pharmaceutical companies.
Johannesburg High Court rejected application by a coin dealer to prevent the
Saturday Star from publishing a story about his business practices.
ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma instituted libel actions running into millions
of rands against The Star, Sunday Times, Rapport, cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro,
The Citizen, Sunday Sun, Sunday World, Sunday Independent and Highveld Stereo
on the grounds that the publications defamed him.
Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi announced a restructuring of police
information services so that policeman on the beat could no longer give
information to media. That had to be done by officers at provincial level.
After media NGOs protested, Selebi amended the system and asked the media to
give it a try. It appears not to be working.
National Director of Public Prosecutions said he wanted to introduce regulations
requiring media to consult him before publishing stories about his department's
investigations and to give him three/four days to answer. He said media came
perilously close to defeating the ends of justice with these stories. After a
delegation from Sanef saw him, he did not pursue the matter further.
ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma's bodyguards and court officials excluded the
media from the first court appearance of Zuma on a rape charge.
Police tried to prevent reporters from covering the trial of four police
officers on charges of attempted robbery and theft from a shop in Germiston
magistrate's court. A reporter's notebook was removed by a policeman.
Presidential security guards intercepted photographers when they took pictures
of President Thabo Mbeki entering Pretoria Hospital for a medical check-up.
Images were removed from a photographer's camera.
Deputy President's bodyguards barred journalists and photographers from
reporting on her visit to Zimbabwean Deputy President at Westcliff Hotel, Johannesburg.
Reporters complain that they are facing great difficulties in obtaining
information. Some government departments have centralised the process so that
only one person is empowered to answer media questions and because of the size
of the department, the person cannot cope or cannot be contacted. Others
request the reporter to call later and then switch off their cellphones. Others
transfer requests for information to other employees in the department who
Spokespersons often request questions to be faxed or emailed and then don't
answer or take time to answer. In municipalities questions are simply not
answered and information such as budgetary or other documentary details are not
given out to the media. There are also instances of misleading or inaccurate
information being given out. In certain police areas only “good news'' is
issues and news of violent crime only released when questions are posed by
There are cases where official advertising is withheld from papers which have
reported critically on a local or provincial authority. There are also
complaints that officially appointed spokespeople do not have any knowledge of
the media's operations or requirements. Reporters often encounter hostility and
some reporters complain of abusive phone calls and even physical attacks.
When she was Minerals and Energy Minister Deputy President Phumzile
Mlambo-Ngcuka proposed introducing legislation that would compel journalists
and civil society groups to “speak responsibly'' on sensitive matters and
would charge violators with incitement — a proposal forcibly condemned by
Officials in Limpopo province barred South African Broadcasting Corporation
(SABC) journalists from entering the provincial legislature; two weeks earlier,
an adviser to Limpopo's premier accosted SABC employees following the
broadcaster's coverage of local politicians.
Members of the Press Gallery in parliament were removed from their offices
close to the parliamentary debating chamber to another building in the
parliamentary precinct with the excuse that the accommodation was required
urgently to meet expanding space demands in parliament but nearly a year later
their offices are still vacant, tending to confirm the media's view that the
government wanted the press to have minimum access to MPs in the parliamentary
A worrying feature in this list is the “government protector role'' adopted by
the SA Broadcasting Corporation. I have referred to the black list, but it is
revealing to compare as I do TV news broadcasts by SABC 3 and eTV and note the
manner in which eTV gets stuck into a subject which discloses government
ineptitude or mismanagement or corruption while the SABC pussy-foots around the
subject until it becomes impossible to ignore when it then deals with it. My
impression is that SABC radio news and talk-in shows are more thrusting in
gathering the news and independent in its presentation than TV. It is noted
that Freedom House in its report on SA media makes the point that Press freedom
in SA deteriorated in 2006, as the government continued to act on its
sensitivity to criticism by restricting private media and compromising the
editorial independence of the SABC.
There is a suspicion that pressure from the government resulted in the SABC
deciding not to air a commissioned documentary about President Thabo Mbeki
(Unauthorised: Thabo Mbeki and the African Country). The SABC claimed it
contained defamatory statements about Mbeki, but journalists who have seen the
video regard it as uncontroversial.
Independent community radio stations operate throughout the country, though
some stations report difficulty in attaining the appropriate license from the
Independent Communications Authority of SA, whose operations are regarded as somewhat
indifferent. These stations have little resource despite the operations of the
Media Diversity and Development Trust, which, however, is clearly underfunded.
I am not aware of how much these stations make use of the government's
propaganda news service, Bua News, which was started to publicise government
activity and to cater for stations lacking resource. It never runs news
critical of government.
For well over a decade the media has been lobbying the Justice Department and
other bodies as a first step to abolish or amend some 12 laws still on the
Statute Books and which restrict media coverage. Many of these laws were passed
during the apartheid era but some of them predate that period. There has been
little response from government though latterly the government has shown
interest in discussing the “reveal your sources'' Section 205 of the Criminal
Procedure Act. Among the laws complained about is criminal defamation thought
that has not been invoked for 30 years.
Last year the Home Affairs Ministry sprung on the media an amendment to the
Films and Publications Act which would have introduced pre-publication
censorship of the media on child pornography, propaganda for war, hate speech
and incitement to violence, all, except child pornography, frequently reported
on in the media. The industry has been exempt since 1962 from the provisions of
the Act and the amendment withdraws that exemption. It was subsequently
replaced for members of Print Media SA but we have pointed out that there are
more than 500 publications which are not PMSA members. Talks are taking place
this week in Cape Town on the issue.
This year the National Key Points Act — one of the laws included in those
which we want abolished or amended — has been revived in a new, more draconian
format with penalties of a fine of R1-million and/or 20 years' imprisonment.
This prevents the media from reporting on security measures at key points or
demonstrations or other activities which may be violent at key points without
An ongoing complaint is that journalists are subject to various forms of
censorship where authorities refuse to give or withhold information; refuse to
answer questions; exclusion (on infrequent occasions) of photographers and even
reporters from public premises or forums; and physical attacks (infrequent) on
reporters and photographers in the presence of police who do nothing to counter
Other impediments: occasional brief arrests of reporters for intruding over
police lines (resulting always in cases being thrown out in court), low
salaries, seriously reduced staffing on many papers; some self censorship
especially on public broadcaster SABC, commercial pressures on editors,
commercial secrecy; encroachment of `anti-terrorism legislation' raising
threats against journalists. Some journalists believe the Films and
Publications Amendment Bill is the thin edge of the wedge in that it is an
attempt to introduce censorship by legal process.
And now we are faced with cellphone monitoring which can have severe
consequences for journalists — through their cellphone call details being
passed on to the police by service providers under subpoena.
Opposition politicians vigorously support media freedom, none more so than
former Nationalists who happily supported apartheid era legislation enacted
against the media. Of course circumstances have changed and now they see the
media and its freedom as essential to their preservation as a minority group.
There has indeed been a substantial change in relations between the government
and the media. In 1994 when democracy arrived in SA, there was much
transparency and willingness to aid reporters by giving information and
answering their questions. Since then there has been a steady deterioration in
transparency with the incidents referred to above growing in frequency.
Official tolerance of media freedom and freedom of expression is diminishing.
SA is fortunate in having three main freedom of expression and media freedom
campaigning organisations, the Freedom of Expression Institute, SA National
Editors' Forum and the SA Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa,
which conduct vigorous campaigns against inroads on media freedom and freedom
of expression. There is also external organisations that criticise inroads on
media freedom such as the International Press Institute, the World Press
Freedom Committee, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International
Federation of Journalists, Article 19 and Amnesty International. Latterly, the
16,000 membership World Association of Newspapers held a conference in SA and
has begun focussing attention on Africa and South Africa, in particular. Its
Declaration of Table Mountain calling for the abolition of “insult'' laws and
criminal defamation and for the requirement for a free and independent media to
be included in the criteria for “good governance'' in the African Union's
African Peer Review Mechanism is an important development. It will no doubt
gain stature when it is sent to the United Nations and Unesco as well as the
African Union for adoption.
These media organisations play an extremely important role in southern Africa
and exert considerable pressure on the authorities in SA and surrounding
countries. Were it not for their vigilance and vigorous action, I have little
doubt that the state of media freedom, dented though it is, would not be as
vibrant as it is in SA. It should be remembered that they also act as a bulwark
against the encroachment on SA of ideas about media repression and interference
that come from surrounding states. An example: Namibia took punitive action
against the Namibian newspaper because of its sharp criticism of state
officials' misconduct and corruption. It withdrew all state advertising from
the paper. A few months later Botswana used the same tactic against a critical
newspaper in that country. Fortunately the paper complained to the Botswana
courts about the government's action and won.
Africa clings to its repressive legislation and despite the protocols to which
the countries subscribe there is more repression rather than some progress
forward in freedom of expression. What is disturbing is the restrictive trends
developing in SA which should be showing the way for Africa. Just two of the
African trends: a Kenyan law that would have forced journalists to disclose
their confidential sources practically on any complaint has been passed by
parliament but fortunately President Kibaki has refused to sign it into law.
Tanzania has a new media law in the offing and that is highly draconian and
repressive. The Western world's media invasive anti-terrorism legislation
encourages other countries to do likewise resulting in media repression on a
A worrying feature is the lack of resource in newsrooms which shows up in the
papers with their tendency to use agency and syndicated material and stories
which come readily to hand such as accidents, murders, etc. In saying this I am
mindful of the obstruction some reporters are encountering in trying to obtain
information from official — and on occasion, business — sources. In the list
above some of those difficulties have been mentioned. They indicate a very
serious breakdown in the government communication structure. So this
observation is couched with some reservations. While lack of resource does show
there are quite frequent occasions when papers have run stories which disclose
that it has embarked on an expensive investigation requiring a lot of staff
time and effort. The Mail and Guardian, by no means a rich paper, has excelled at
this but so have other papers such the Sunday Times with its startling Health
Minister expose and the Daily Dispatch with its expose of baby death scandal at
the Frere Hospital in East London. There have been others on SABC and eTV
programmes as well. I'm being more than somewhat selective in mentioning only a
Those exposes show that the SA media is indeed vibrant.
However, I come back to the concentration on profit-making which the ruling ANC
has begun to criticise. At its June policy conference the ANC produced a paper
that was critical of the media, though it appeared not to have devoted much
attention to it at the conference. But the media should note its contents and
watch whatever develops from it.
The paper criticises — rightly — concentration of ownership of the print
media and raises issues of shared editorial services and wire service inputs
which reduce diversity and makes the accusation that the maximisation of
profits is the sole purpose. It ignores the need for media to maintain
viability and a sound profit base to enable it to withstand attacks on it
through expensive court cases or the withholding of advertising and thereby
There is also no reference in the paper to the introspection currently taking
place in the print media, especially, about the concentration of ownership, the
dents in the “Chinese wall'' supposed to protect editorial from managerial and
commercial influences, the cutting of staff resources which has taken place on
some SA newspapers.
Questions posed in the paper are:
* What are the existing and potential threats to freedom of expression and of
* What mechanisms, programmes and campaigns need to be undertaken to ensure
that ever greater numbers of South Africans, particularly the poor and working
class, are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression and impact on
the national discourse?
* What does the democratic movement need to do to ensure that within a free and
diverse media the progressive political and ideological perspectives supported
by the majority of South Africans achieve prominence?
* Within the context of the Constitutional right of freedom of expression, and
the challenge of extending the practice of that right to all South Africans,
what are the respective responsibilities and functions of the democratic
government, the commercial media sector, civil society and the structures of
The last three questions are worrying because they suggest there should be some
intervention to achieve extremely broad objectives which can be interpreted in
a variety of ways.
The penultimate question — what should be done to ensure the politics and
ideology supported by the majority “achieve prominence''? — could indicate an
intention to publish a state-owned newspaper or the making of demands on
private papers to give prominence to ANC politics and ideology. If the latter,
the consequences for a free media in South Africa are ominous.
Assurances of acting “within the context of the Constitutional right to
freedom of expression'' are hollow when it is recalled that the cabinet ignored
pleas by two media NGOs not to proceed with the Films and Publications
amendment until there had been proper consultation.
I have dealt only slightly with the business sector. I am aware that the
refusal to give out information is not confined to the civil service and that
where embarrassing information is concerned the private sector is equally
reticent and unhelpful to reporters. When environmental issues involving private
business or industry arise, some of the companies involved go to extreme
lengths to prevent publication such as obtaining interdicts against papers. And
the owners of newspapers need to examine their profit-making policies and
ensure that the ANC allegation that maximisation of profits is the sole purpose
is not borne out. Newspapers have a mission to provide a public service at a
Talking of Constitutional assurances brings me to my concluding point that the
government should study the Constitution more diligently, because in my view
there are two important demands posed in the Bill of Rights on the state and
its servants which are being ignored:
It is clause 7 (2) which states: “The state must respect, protect, promote and
fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights'' and
Clause 8 (1) which states that the Bill of Rights applies to all law and binds
the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and all organs of state''.
It is my contention that the long list of press freedom violations shows that
civil servants and politicians in government are ignoring and thus breaching
those very important and demanding instructions. The fact that these are being
ignored indicates that more discussion of these shortcomings by government
spokesperson and departments is required.