World Press Freedom Day (3 May) gives us the opportunity to assess the freedom of our press in South Africa.
As anyone who regularly reads our newspapers will be aware, the press is often extremely critical of government and does not hesitate to pour scorn on national leaders - often in the most derisive terms.
The ANC’s official approach gives full recognition to the need for freedom of expression. It confirms that “the Constitution protects and provides for the freedom of the media, freedom of expression and access to information.” However, there might be some difference of opinion on the role of the media and what freedom of expression actually means.
In particular, the ANC believes that the media has a special role in the implementation of its National Democratic Revolution. According to its 2010 NGC discussion documents, “The ANC holds that in our National Democratic Revolution (NDR), the media should contribute to the transformation of our country. Building social cohesion and promoting values of a caring society are an essential part of the battle of ideas and must underpin and inform the manner in which the media operates. The accountability and fairness of reporting are central to the objective assessment of the gains of the NDR.”
The ANC also makes no secret of its media goals: “Our objectives therefore are to vigorously communicate the ANC's outlook and values (developmental state, collective rights, values of caring and sharing community, solidarity, ubuntu, non-sexism, working together) versus the current mainstream media's ideological outlook (neo-liberalism, a weak and passive state, and overemphasis on individual rights, market fundamentalism, etc.).”
The ANC believes that the media must be transformed as part of its struggle on what it calls the “battlefield of ideas”. It has taken numerous legislative steps and other actions to achieve its communication goals - many of which are irreconcilable with its professed support for freedom of expression.
Freedom House, the widely respected monitor of global civil, political and media freedom has categorised South Africa since 2010 as being only “partly free” in terms of press freedom. In its 2015 report it concluded that press freedom in South Africa is on a downward trajectory. The reasons that it cites for downgrading South Africa include the following:
- The pre-1994 National Key Points Act, which is being used to prevent journalists from taking photographs or accessing an increasing number of locations that the government regards as being sensitive.
- Government institutions are not meeting their obligations to provide information in terms of the 2000 Promotion of Access to Information Act. Freedom House quotes a 2014 report that full disclosure was provided in on 16% of applications between August 2013 and July 2014.
- The Protection of Information Act - although improved - nevertheless fails to meet the demands of its critics - particularly because there is still no public interest defence and because people caught in possession of classified information could still receive substantial prison sentences.
- Continuing agitation for the establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal. The Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) has its roots in a resolution adopted at the ANC’s 2007 National Conference at Polokwane on the need to “balance the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the media, with the right to equality, to privacy and human dignity for all.” Last year President Zuma announced that the MAT was necessary because the Press’s own system of self-regulation had failed. He said that the media “need to be governed themselves because at times they go overboard on the rights.” He added that the media claimed to be “the watchdog of the people”, but “they were never elected”. He said that the media was not the only body that understood rights: “We at the ANC, we believe we do. We fought for the rights.”
- ANC domination of the SABC - particularly the actions of its Chief Operations Officer - Hlaudi Motsoeneng - who, according to Freedom House, has frequently used the public broadcaster to promote the interests of the ANC.
- The growing share of public media that is now owned by allies of the government - in particular, the purchase of Independent News and Media, South Africa by Sekunjalo - assisted by massive loans from the Public Investment Corporation (PIC). The Government has also subsidised friendly media with advertising and sponsorship of special breakfasts; and increasing pressure is now being directed against Naspers - the country’s strongest media company.
- A December 2014 ANC National Executive Committee meeting reportedly finalised a plan to withdraw government advertising from newspapers that are critical of the ruling party and the President.
All these developments provide serious grounds for concern about the future of press freedom in South Africa. This is particularly the case because our outspoken press - together with the independence of the courts and our vigorous civil society organisations - are the last lines of defence against those who are intent on capturing the state and on undermining the constitutional values on which our new society has been founded.
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation