Media refers to the means of mass communication within a society. It entails the electronic (internet), broadcasting (radio and television), and print (publishing) media. Media Freedom is a sanctity and civil liberty that any democratic country ought to be able to lay claims to, and incredibly, South Africa has come a long way in this regard. However, when viewed critically in many presumably, democratic, free and open countries, including the current democratic Republic of South Africa, a pertinent question is: Is this truly the situation?
Threats facing Media Freedom in South Africa
For any democracy to flourish, protecting free and diverse media is essential. This is because media freedom helps protect the ‘democratic balance’ of an elected government, as perennially demonstrated by democratic giants like the United States and the United Kingdom. The exertion of the rights and privileges of the free media in these democratic countries has greatly helped to contribute to and shape their quality of governance, such that they are a well-renown and true force to be reckoned with in the international community. A free media functions as a watchdog for a democratically elected government, and in the absence of media freedom, democracy simply cannot exist. Unfortunately, in less democratic climes, such as obtains in many countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, journalists have been known to have been victimised, severely injured, and often killed in the line of duty because of numerous existential threats. These threats include but are not limited to:
· Harassment: Many journalists have been known to face harassment while on official assignment, often from the police and other government representatives who often may not actually be acting in the capacity of the government. Examples abound of journalists who are slapped, rough handled, threatened with arrest, or even arrested in the line of duty. For example, while trying to report certain civil infractions in the Free State, a South African male journalist, Paul Nthoba, was brutalized by the police during the COVID -19 lockdown of 2020. He had to flee to Lesotho, and it took the intervention of the President, Cyril Ramaphosa, to assure his safety and eventual return. Female journalists are not left out of the fray and, sadly, frequently have it worse. Consequently, this has resulted in the unfortunate loss of many from the industry.
· Lack of finance: It takes financial resources to run a successful media enterprise, and people need to learn to ‘pay’ for good news in order to support the professionalism of journalism. Insufficient finance negatively impacts so many things ranging from journalism independence and ethics to the well-being of journalists. The resultant effect is the compromise of news quality and information dissemination.
· The threat of job loss/income: Closely linked to harassment and inadequate finance is the threat of job loss and, consequently, the pervading fear of income loss. This undoubtedly is bad in an economy already rife with crime and struggling with a high unemployment rate.
There are, quite frankly, many social determinants of journalistic optimum performance, and this is top on the list.
· Social media monitoring and censorship: Social media has improved the rate and quality of communication in many instances. This is a double-edged sword; however, as in many cases, the converse is actually true. There is an increased preponderance for disseminating false news, which genuine journalists, unfortunately, are not immune to. This is because a number of them, for several reasons, primarily inadequate finance, obtain their information sources from the same social media, thereby perpetuating the dissemination of fake news. Added to this is the monitoring and censorship of social media by state secret service, which negatively impacts journalism’s work. It is a common occurrence that a whistle-blower journalist who gets identified by government monitoring agents or powerful politicians often ends up in jail and his assets confiscated.
So, why must media freedom be protected in South Africa?
The Free Media strengthens the hard-won democracy
It is an undeniable fact that the Republic of South Africa fought long and hard for its democracy. In fact, in the words of the late Nelson Mandela, it was indeed a “long walk to freedom.” Before democracy, i.e., during the apartheid era, the government was anti-media freedom and repressive in all ramifications. Consequently, many journalists and freedom fighters lost their livelihoods and lives as a result of it. While the most crucial driver of democracy has been stated to be the freedom of all forms of news media, and without media freedom, democracy simply cannot exist. The presence of free media helps maintain the balance of power of a democratically elected government. In the United States, this is protected by the First Amendment. In South Africa, similar laws must be enacted.
The Free Media conveys the truth and informs voters
A free press conveys the truth to the people because they are trained to ask the right questions and conduct relevant investigations to obtain that truth. Most people do not have the luxury of time, training or resources to investigate issues germane to the functioning of government or of national importance. The free media informs voters by information analyses, fact-checking and encouraging national discourse. By offering valuable insight to voters, a free media truncates the power of special interest groups who may wish to use the power of government to push their specific agenda.
The Free Media holds power accountable
A free media acts as a watchdog that investigates happenings and wrong-doings, essentially reporting the government to the people. It, therefore, ensures that those in a democratic government do not misuse the power entrusted to them. In the absence of a free press, those in power might as well subject the electorate to a reign of terror. Instances abound within South Africa where in the recent past, even the immediate past President, Jacob Zuma, was not immune to the free media. Because the function of free media is to monitor the actions of government and powerful politicians for corruption and mismanagement, he was ultimately held accountable for corruption charges and faced the wrath of the law. This proves that media freedom is critical to ensuring that powerful politicians do not hold the electorate to ransom. It is noteworthy that this has been demonstrated in several instances in South Africa. Hence, media freedom can show the outcomes of morally good and bad decisions. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the highly and lowly placed to always choose to do right.
It is instructive to note that media freedom is inherently enshrined in the South African constitution. “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.” – Section 16(1)7.
While media freedom enables the open exchange of ideas, perspectives, and information across the strata of society, the numerous threats to media freedom, as earlier outlined, need to be conclusively addressed to ensure that the media in South Africa are truly protected and free.
Dr. Lizzy Oluwatoyin Ofusori is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Management, IT and Governance, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. She writes in her capacity.