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Ramaphosa: ‘Media freedom in South Africa is a cause for optimism and pride’

Ramaphosa: ‘Media freedom in South Africa is a cause for optimism and pride’
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

We are fortunate to have come a long way since Black Wednesday, but it is of concern that we are seeing a resurgence of online and other forms of abuse directed against journalists in our national life.

A free press is among the most significant dividends of our democracy, yet it is one that we perhaps take the most for granted.

On Wednesday, we will observe Media Freedom Day in South Africa, marking the events of 19 October 1977 and what became known as Black Wednesday.

This was when the apartheid regime banned The World, Weekend World and the Voice newspapers, arrested the legendary The World editor Percy Qoboza and scores of activists, and outlawed several Black Consciousness organisations.

In South Africa barely 45 years ago, the very practice of journalism was seen as a threat to the stability of the state.

In reflecting on how things have changed since the advent of democracy, the real-time barometer on global press freedom published by Reporters without Borders (RSF) is instructive.

At the bottom of each country report is an infographic detailing abuses of journalists.

One considers, for example, that this year alone 45 journalists and four media workers have been killed in various parts of the globe in circumstances relating to their work. Also, this year, 207 journalists and seven media workers have been imprisoned.

In South Africa, no journalists were killed in 2022 in circumstances relating to their journalistic activity and none was imprisoned. This was also the case last year, the year before and in the years preceding them.

This is an indicator of the robust health of not just our media but of democracy itself.

That journalists are free to ply their trade without fear of retribution is something we can be extremely proud of. In South Africa, media can publish and broadcast freely, and the media regulates itself through various mechanisms such as the Press Code.

Tabloid-style journalism exists alongside serious reportage. Serious, informed critique exists alongside gossip-mongering and broadsides against public personalities, celebrities and politicians.

As the head of state, I am the subject of different media products on a near daily basis. That the President should be consistently in the media’s crosshairs is to be expected and I will continue to take it in my stride.

Fruit of democracy

Media freedom is a fruit of democracy and one we must all jealously safeguard and strive to uphold.

This is particularly the case when there are attempts to intimidate, threaten or silence journalists using online and other platforms. This was particularly witnessed during the State Capture era.

What was most disturbing were the attacks directed at female political journalists on social media platforms, using misogynistic terminology and even accompanied by threats of sexual violence.

Given this regrettable period in our not-too-distant past, it is of concern that we are seeing a resurgence of online and other forms of abuse directed against journalists in our national life.

The ill-treatment of journalists that is happening in so many parts of the world is something that should not be allowed to happen in South Africa. The media plays an unparalleled role in ensuring there is accountability in our democratic order, so we must all stand firm against any attempts to intimidate or silence journalists.

Despite our gains around press freedom, this year South Africa’s ranking in the RSF World Press Freedom Index dropped three notches since 2021.

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There are multiple facets to media freedom. Journalists’ safety is just one indicator; the others are political and economic context, legal framework and sociocultural context. The index cites accessing quality journalism via paywalls as an economic barrier for citizens, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on funding for small and independent media to operate and online smear campaigns by political parties directed at journalists.

Another factor that is heavily impacting the state of journalism not just in South Africa but around the world is the threat posed by disinformation.

Read in Daily Maverick: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance – as Black Wednesday approaches, ominous signs abound

The steady encroachment of disinformation being disseminated online and even by established media outlets is worrying. Its potential to cause harm extends way beyond the confines of an individual consumer of news.

We witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of this during the 2021 July unrest in several parts of the country, when false information disguised as reportage inflamed tensions between communities and was used to mobilise people to commit criminal acts and even to incite violence.

In the disinformation age, we need more media, not less.

The only counter to the proliferation of disinformation is the growth and expansion of credible news media outlets. The only counter to bad journalism rife with political agendas and “purging crusades” is credible, well-trained journalists whose only interest is educating and informing the public.

Both government and the private sector are called upon to play their part in supporting the free press by ensuring its sustainability through advertising, content partnerships and other models.

We are fortunate indeed that we have come a long way since Black Wednesday.

As we commemorate Media Freedom Day, we salute our nation’s hard-working journalists, editors and other media workers who continue to fulfil their important role in the service of democracy. DM

This is the President’s weekly letter to the nation released on Monday.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Yes, Mr President. SA’s press freedom is something to be proud of and it is vital for building a functioning democracy. What is equally important, that politicians should take heed what is expressed by the media, which in many ways is a reflection of what the population thinks and feels. It is in the latter domain that SA falls terribly short.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Is this the most relevant issue our president can find to write about? Not the poverty his government exacts on our people, nor water it electricity outages, not even the rampant pillaging of the poorest pillaged by the ANC elite? This letter is a sham that illustrates your and your ANC’s disregard for the vast majority struggling to survive your oppressive rule. Shame on you, CR, and your ANC.

    • John Cartwright says:

      Ag no man. He’a writing about it because Media Freedom Day is coming up and, for all the many faults of his government and of himself as a leader, at least he is talking sense on this matter and not obviously acting out of line with his words.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Media freedom is not a fruit of democracy alone because many journalist were part of the struggle for freedom and the media exposed excesses of Apartheid and its criminal nature as it has exposed the excesses of ANC and its criminality. The media has exposed even this excesses of theft of public resources for the Executive approved in the middle of the night and hidden. The media was there to report on our arrests and detentions and even the deaths in detention. This month is of special importance to the media as in October 1977, the Apartheid regime banned a number of newspaper titles because they were viewed as subversive as Mbalula viewed the SABC as subversive when it exposed running sewage in the streets, potholes and a noncaring ANC in many municipalities without a word from you. Magopheni was fired for this using the other issues as a scapegoat and Vanara was proved a liar by CCMA as the Western Cape court proved him to be one despite the drivelk of Kriegler.

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