At a time of crisis and anxiety, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown regulations, media ought to play a crucial role of communication between the government and its citizen. Among other things, citizens need to be informed via media the strategies and initiatives that the government is taking to control, curb and combat the virus. The media is supposed to help citizens to understand and navigate through challenging time by providing comprehensive coverage of issues from the economic impact, government announcements and new ways for the nation to function. The public rightfully expects the media to report not only on statistics around infection rate or recoveries but also to unpack other ongoing shifts and consequences related to the pandemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) director general emphasised the importance of timely and accurate information at times of emergencies pleading for ‘no states censorship’ or imposition of ‘undue restrictions’ on the flow of information.
While significant public attention is directed on the economic impact of the aftermath of COVID-19, we also need to be cognisance of the severity its threat to civic space, that is the right to freely communicate, organise and participate in public life. Under the facade of confronting and managing COVID-19 pandemic, the world has witnessed various acts stifling freedom of expression and contravening the human rights of access to information. In many African countries the ongoing pandemic despite claiming thousands of lives, it has also weakened freedom of speech, leaving the media filled with elements of authoritarian restrictions. Majority of African countries struggled to tackle COVID-19 due to resource limitations such as capable health infrastructure, expertise, medical equipment and finances. Given this situation, many governments resorted to clamping down media and forcing a veil of silence over the spreading of the virus as well as the state capacity in dealing with the virus.
Moreover, the ‘information epidemic’ of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 did not help, due to its harmful impact, states had to be deal with it, and so it provided the much-needed legitimacy to cripple freedom of speech by some African governments. Some African governments deliberately designated any independent legitimate news coverage of coronavirus spread as ‘fake news’. Likewise, they imposed strict restrictions on information access and media publication of any news concerning the coronavirus. Apart from government actions, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent restrictions to flatten the virus-spread curve have significantly shaped the future of media and freedom of speech South Africa.
Media and freedom of speech in South Africa amid the COVID-19 pandemic
COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted how we operate in all aspects of life. With learning and work being done online, its impact has not spared media and freedom speech as well. In South Africa, the impact of COVID-19 on media and freedom of speech traverses mainly in two ways; one through government restrictions directed on the media industry and second through the consequences of the restrictions imposed to control the spread and thus manage the coronavirus, such as lockdown and social distance.
In recent years media houses in South Africa have been struggling with the decline in consumption of print media materials and consequently advertisement. The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have further escalated the situation, forcing media houses either to close down entirely or to migrate to the online platform. In the online outlet, media houses are forced to compete with individual self-made reporters empowered by social media who are everywhere. Moreover, with people spending more time at home, the media houses find themselves being pressured between increased demands, declined revenue from advertisement and intense competition. Consequently, media houses need to revamp their business model and adopt a more flexible model that can compete in the online mode.
South Africa has one of the freest most vibrant media industry with a generally robust legal environment for media freedom in the continent. While the 1996 constitution provides for access to information and freedom of expression and press, its also allows for censorship and restrictions on advocacy for hatred, incitement of imminent violence, incitement to cause harm and on propaganda for war. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has applied the same provisions to impose several restrictions on media and the general freedom of expression. Not only that, but the government has also centralised information flows such that all media publish the same information, especially on the latest statistics concerning the pandemic. While these actions are understandable given the rise and the negative consequences of misinformation, if the temporary emergency state is not lifted, they run the risk of becoming a de facto principle to report what the government tells the media houses.
With misinformation about COVID-19 becoming rampant online, South Africa, like other nations, joined the bandwagon of introducing measures to address the spreading of false or unverified health information. Towards this, the president signed a law that permitted the Film and Publication Board (FPB) to issue takedown notices for a broad range of online content. Also, the government is collaborating with private technology companies and fact-checkers to lessen the spread of health misinformation. However, such a law can be easily applied to defame and vilify media and thus infringe freedom of expression. Many African nations, even prior to COVID-19, are known to use libel and defamation laws or to shut down the Internet to limit media and citizens’ freedom of expression.
Furthermore, due to COVID-19 South Africa enacted a state of disaster regulations that infringed freedom of expression online. With the lockdown restrictions limiting physical movement, online platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and websites served as the alternative channels for circulating information. However, the government imposed criminal penalties for any COVID-19 related speeches that were alleged to be misleading or deceiving. These reporting restrictions created fear on media houses and citizen as well in expressing or passing opinions, especially on governments conduct in managing COVID-19.
Also, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African government, under the emergency regulations made several arrests of Internet users for spreading false or fake information regarding the pandemic. These emergency regulations ignite fear among journalists in search of news concerning the pandemic and consequently restricting journalists’ freedom of operation. Consequently, the online expression in South Africa has declined due to the imposed emergency regulations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Post-COVID-19 Media and Freedom of Speech Scenario in South Africa
Generally, the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 pandemic have served to encroach media and freedom of expression in South Africa. The advent of the new coronavirus pandemic has been exploited as an excuse by many countries to further limit media and freedom of expression. As a consequence of the restrictions, print media has been displaced forced to venture online while at the same time, the online expression has been infringed, thus declining. Moreover, during the pandemic, the world witnessed an increase in the number of arrest and attacks on journalists covering the pandemic by law enforcers and security agencies throughout Africa.
In the post-COVID-19 pandemic phase, champions of free media and freedom of expression must thus address two challenges; identify how to roll back the emergency measures that imposed increased censorship and criminalisation of fake or false information as well as how to minimise the effect of mass surveillance imposed during the pandemic on freedom of expression.
Furthermore, in these changing times, media houses need to consider free online content that hooks consumers as a critical long-term success strategy. The captivating free online content serves to retain audience either to attract online advertisement revenue or in the hopes that they will eventually venture into paid content.
Therefore, while the threat of the consequences of fake information surrounding the pandemic is real, it is also essentially critical that media is not over-regulated. Media reporting is essential, especially in emergencies to raise awareness, spread information on measures to combat the emergency as well as to ease fear and anxiety related to the emergency. As the United Nations’ Secretary General noted on the World Press Day on 3 May 2020, the press is an ‘antidote’ to the prevailing misinformation. Even at times of pandemic countries should strive to uphold freedom of media and expression and that such freedom should only be limited with justification, for example, when the information is proven to be false or fake. It is thus necessary to ensure that the post-COVID-19 media should be free to find information and corroborate with their sources. In so doing, we thus have to ensure that the emergency measures imposed for the COVID-19 pandemic do not become the norm for media in South Africa.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.