Press freedom in democratic South Africa is a fragile concept
The riots, looting, wanton damage to property, and the murders in Phoenix associated with the “attempted insurrection” of July stemming from internal fallout within the ANC have raised speculation about how close South Africa is to becoming “another Zimbabwe” – a failed, lawless state.
The question was reinforced after Defence
Minister Thandi Modise, her deputy, Thabang Makwetla, and Mondli Gungubele, the Minister in the Presidency, were held hostage for three hours by 56 disgruntled ANC military veterans on 14 October.
What next? Perhaps an announcement on SABC: “The Guptas, from Dubai, have been reinstated as the rulers of South Africa and remain as committed as ever to Radical Economic Transformation. Their local pawn will be reappointed as leader as soon as his medical parole and prison record have been expunged… President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet have been deposed and banished to their new Robben Island abode in a bloodless coup.”
The independent judiciary, which is under increasing pressure from the beneficiaries of corruption, and the free news media, which plays a critical role in exposing this venal elite, are the difference between South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Under apartheid, with a few courageous exceptions, the media was reduced to being a handmaiden of the ruling National Party. Those who did not comply faced the full force of the ruthless apartheid security apparatus.
On 19 October 1977, The World and Weekend
World newspapers were banned. The editor of The World, Percy Qoboza, who became the editor of City Press in 1984, was taken into detention and held for five months under section 10 of the Internal Security Act in Modderbee Prison. Further, the apartheid regime declared illegal 19 Black Consciousness organisations and detained scores of activists. That day is now commemorated in South Africa as “Black Wednesday” and is also marked as National Press Freedom Day” (South African History Online: Home).
In democratic South Africa press freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution. However, all is not well and there have been threats against the media from within the ruling ANC government, as well as other politicians.
The government wanted the media to be less critical, and more “patriotic”, and this was emphasised by Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s Bloemfontein conference in July 2008 when he said:
“Newspapers have by now had almost 15 years to inform the public. Their actions do not reflect their words.
“Our observation is that they do not inform on progress in the country. If you look at the columns and pages, it is sensational and it is not balanced. When you read what the clever media people write, you wonder whether they are describing the organisation you belong to.
“Newspapers twist the truth in their headlines. It causes damage. It is unfair reporting. Why should the ANC not start a newspaper to inform our citizens?”
We now know that there was no need for the government to proceed further because the Gupta-managed (and governmentfunded from cash-strapped SOEs) media, The New Age and the ANN7 TV channel, filled the breach as HMV (his master’s voice).
Jane Duncan, professor of journalism, argued that, “There’s a non-transparent channelling of government advertising to prop up a media outlet that is now very clearly acting as a propaganda arm for the Guptas and the support for the Presidency and in return, the Presidency’s support for the Guptas.”
In a candid assessment in 2020, Reporters sans frontières (RSF), or Reporters Without Borders, an independent NGO, with consultative status with the United Nations agency Unesco (which has an explicit decree to promote “the free flow of ideas by word and image”), concluded that “press freedom [was] guaranteed but fragile” in South Africa.
According to RSF: “An investigative journalism culture is well established, but apartheid-era legislation and terrorism laws are used to limit coverage of governments institutions when ‘national interest’ is supposedly at stake.
“The State Security Agency spies on some journalists and taps their phones. Others are harassed and subjected to intimidation campaigns if they try to cover certain subjects involving the ruling African National Congress (ANC), government finances, the redistribution of land to the black population or corruption.”