Opinion: The current state of press freedom in South Africa

Friday 3 May is Press Freedom Day.

William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa shares some thoughts.

1. How free is South Africa in 2019 when it comes to freedom of speech and press freedom?

Like so many things in our fabulous country we have much to be proud of, and also many aspects that we need to guard and fight against with every fibre of our being. Such is the danger present, that if we don’t we may well fall into an abyss of anti-democratic unfree authoritarian Trumpian style hell.

We have high levels of media freedom and when we compare these to the other countries in our region or the continent we probably fail to appreciate just how free our society is. We can publish and say pretty much what we like about our leaders, and start up a news service if you have the desire and resources.

We have generally good and progressive laws and in many respects, our country leads the way when it comes to things such as media being allowed to report and broadcast criminal trials. (There was a very cool Supreme Court ruling on this) and also in terms of protecting our most vulnerable members of society in how we report on children. We have functioning self and co-regulatory mechanisms and with the Real411 we have introduced a world first for enabling members of the public to complain about disinformation online.

Against this, however, we have seen declines in media quality in many of our mainstream media. Failing business models and commercial pressures pose fundamental threats to media freedom. We have high levels of media concentration and a struggling public broadcaster that is ever precarious and seen as the plaything of the state. As with everywhere else, our journalists are subjected to new forms of censorship through social media via harassment or online trolling, and as with just about every other sphere of our society, there is a clear gender dimension where women journalists especially are the subject of the most extreme forms of harassment and censorship through trolling. Media credibility is being continually undermined and the ease of spreading mis- and disinformation poses a clear threat not just to media freedom but to all democratic institutions. Media and journalism could not be more important than they are now in doing their job of reporting our world, informing the public and fighting for media freedom.

2. Looking back on the past 25 years, how much progress has been made? Is it a positive or negative trajectory in general?

We have in many instances taken 10 steps forward and eight steps back. If we look at where we were 25 years ago with no community media, a handful of broadcasters and a few major media, we now have hundreds of community broadcasters and small commercial print.

We have online-only media such as Daily Maverick that punches way above its size. For the first time since our democracy, we have an independent SABC board, and senior executives appointed on skill and capability, not the political will. That said, our journalism is under profound commercial threat; our journalists and media trust are being undermined on a level last witnessed under apartheid and while the enemies of media freedom and democracy are no longer national party racist sexist scumbags, the new ones are equally dangerous, sexist and vindictive. We have the potential of social media and also its dangers.

The simple reality is that the internet and our emerging digital reality (despite lack of access for millions) have massive potential, but unless we deliberately set about ensuring it works for democracy it will simply reinforce the same power dynamics and relations and anti-democratic tendencies of every other major revolution. This means focusing on ensuring it works for equality, for non-sexism, for democracy and media freedom and for young people especially to have the skills to make effective use of the tools available.

For our journalism, it means fighting and supporting news organisations and condemning attacks on journalists and media freedom. In the end, however, if we are asking if we are better off today than we were at the fall of apartheid there can be no doubt that we are light years better off than where we were and any revisionist attempt to suggest that somehow things were better then is delusional and out of touch with reality.

Mandela talks about the importance of press freedom in 1994:


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