World Press Freedom Day is a time for appreciating the gains while remaining vigilant
The commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May prompts us to assess the state of press freedom in South Africa and compare it with other countries in the region and worldwide.
This commemoration follows on the heels of Freedom Day in South Africa, which was on 27 April which, for those in the media space, was another opportunity to take stock of freedom of expression and the media in the country. On both occasions, the Freedom of Expression Institute concluded that while there is much that has been achieved and needs to be protected, continued vigilance is warranted for good reason.
South African discourse in the media makes for very robust engagement which could end up with the journalists concerned either being jailed or killed in countries as varied as Zimbabwe, Somalia and Hong Kong. The harassment and arrests endured by Hopewell Rugoho-Chin’ono in Zimbabwe, the death of Abdiaziz Mohamud Guled in Somalia and the arrest of Allan Au Ka-lun in Hong Kong are cases in point.
The impactful role that investigative journalists in South Africa were able to play in shining the light on corruption and state capture in the recent past would be nothing short of signing their own death warrants in other jurisdictions. However, in a country with freedom of expression and the media guaranteed under Section 16 of the Constitution, does the current state of media freedom measure up to the ideals set out in the Bill of Rights? What exactly did the Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), or Reporters Without Borders 2020 Report mean by describing press freedom in South Africa as “guaranteed but fragile”?
According to Media Monitoring Africa’s William Bird the Constitutionally protected freedom of expression and the media is being steadily eroded by the decreasing number of journalists in newsrooms, which has worked to restrict press freedom. A consequence of said depleted newsrooms is that the average number of sources per story has dropped from more than two sources to about 1.3 per story. Media freedom chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum Mary Papayya has cited trolling and cyberbullying of journalists on social media as one of their greatest causes for concern.
Papayya confirmed that these online attacks were on the increase particularly for journalists speaking out against certain politicians or calling certain issues to order. Our own research at the Freedom of Expression Institute has found female journalists being targeted online as females, with attacks ranging from body shaming to threats of either rape or death.
While journalists like 702’s Tshidi Madia took these attacks as part of the hazards of being a journalist, others like Ranjeni Munusamy sought to avoid covering events by certain political parties for the sake of her own safety and that of her fellow journalists. The impact of all these threats and attacks has been to systematically undermine the gains made with the advent of democracy and constitutionalism in South Africa.
The RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom index rates South Africa above the United Kingdom and the United States of America – a sure reason to celebrate. One can safely assume that the UK and USA were once above South Africa and thus without constant vigilance of its fragile state of press freedom South Africa may also slip down the rankings. It is hoped that as delegates meet in Punta del Este, Uruguay from 2 to 5 May 2022 for the World Press Freedom Global Conference under the theme “Journalism under digital siege” solutions will be found to address the impact of the digital era on freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, access to information and media viability.
Samkelo Mokhine is Executive Director of the Freedom of Expression Institute.