Freedom of the Press

South Africa

South Africa

Freedom of the Press 2007

2007 Scores

Press Status

Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

28

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

12

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

9

Freedom of expression and of the press, protected in principle by the constitution, are generally respected in practice in South Africa. Nevertheless, several apartheid-era laws that remain in effect permit authorities to restrict the publication of information about the police, national defense forces, prisons, and mental institutions and to compel journalists to reveal sources. A proposed film and publication amendment bill was sent to Parliament in August 2006; it would subject print and broadcast media to the same prepublication screening for “indecent content” that is currently required for films, computer games, and magazines. After vociferous protest from media outlets and press freedom advocates, President Thabo Mbeki postponed a decision on the bill until 2007. Recent years have seen an increase in the use of interdictions and gag orders by both governmental and nonstate actors, a trend the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute likens to prepublication censorship. In February, the Johannesburg High Court approved an interdiction request from a Muslim religious organization to prevent the country’s largest newspaper, the Sunday Times, from reprinting allegedly offensive cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. In September, the Johannesburg High Court granted an interdiction request brought by the former head of the national postal service against the Mail & Guardian newspaper; the Court overturned the gag order 10 days later. The Mail & Guardian had been the subject of a May 2005 gag order that delayed for over a month the publication of an article on the “Oilgate” corruption scandal.

South Africa features vibrant press freedom advocacy and journalists’ organizations, and a number of private newspapers and magazines—including the Mail & Guardian, the Cape Times, and the Sunday Times—are sharply critical of the government, political parties, and other societal actors. The state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) dominates broadcast media. Although editorially independent, the SABC has come under fire for displaying pro-government bias and for encouraging self-censorship. In June, the SABC—apparently under pressure from the government—opted not to air a commissioned documentary about President Mbeki because it contained allegedly defamatory statements about him. In the year’s most worrying development for press freedom, in October the Mail & Guardian website leaked excerpts from an internal SABC report that found several outspoken government critics had been barred from SABC airwaves. The leaked report accused head of news Snuki Zikalala of repeated and inappropriate interventions in the SABC’s news programs. The SABC then attempted to interdict the Mail & Guardian’s online publication of the “blacklist” report, but the interdiction request was struck down by the Johannesburg High Court. In October, the SABC decided not to release the full report, making available only selected excerpts and summaries. In addition, members of government and other political figures continued to reveal a heightened sensitivity to media criticism, in some cases accusing critical journalists of racism and betraying the state.

Most South Africans receive the news via radio outlets associated with the SABC. However, efforts are being made to expand the number and broadcasting range of community radio stations via the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). In April, press freedom organizations praised Mbeki’s decision not to sign controversial legislation that would have enabled the minister of communications to select the ICASA council. While the SABC’s three stations claim most of the television market, the country’s two commercial television stations, e.tv and M-Net, are reaching ever greater proportions of the population—78 percent of the population accessed e.tv in 2006. Internet access is unrestricted and growing rapidly, although many South Africans cannot afford the service fee and only 10 percent of the population accessed it in 2006.