South Africa | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

South Africa

South Africa

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status


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


Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)


Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)


Freedoms 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 and national defense forces and to compel journalists to reveal sources. A proposed film and publication amendment bill was sent to parliament in 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, ostensibly intended to protect primarily against child pornography. However, after vociferous protests from media outlets and press freedom advocates, the bill was revised in June 2007 to exclude print and broadcast media. Recent years have seen an increase in the use of interdictions and gag orders by both governmental and nonstate actors. In July, a high court in the capital city of Pretoria prevented the Mail & Guardian newspaper—as well as other media—from publishing details of alleged corruption at the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

Journalists are occasionally harassed and assaulted in South Africa. In July, the editor of an oppositionist online newspaper in Zimbabwe was shot in Johannesburg by three unknown assailants; the journalist survived the attack, which saw the bullet pierce close to his heart, but it is unclear whether the incident was related to his work. More often, members of government and other political figures reveal a heightened sensitivity to media criticism, in some cases by accusing critical journalists of racism and betraying the state. In August, a major controversy emerged after the Sunday Times published articles claiming that Health Minister Tshabalala Msimang’s recent liver transplant was necessitated by alcoholism, that she jumped transplant queues, and that she had stolen from a patient while a medical superintendent in Botswana. After the minister took legal action, a Johannesburg high court ordered the newspaper to return copies of the minister’s records to a Cape Town clinic and to pay legal fees; the paper was allowed to continue reporting on the story. Subsequently, the editor and deputy editor of the Sunday Times were the subjects of police investigations for stealing medical records, and President Thabo Mbeki criticized the behavior and ownership structure of the media. In November, close political allies of Mbeki were involved in the purchase of the Johncom media group—which owns the Sunday Times. In December, the ruling African National Congress resolved to investigate the establishment of a national media tribunal to regulate irresponsible reporting.

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 SABC dominates broadcast media. Although editorially independent, the SABC has come under fire for displaying progovernment bias and for encouraging self-censorship. A 2006 internal SABC report that found several outspoken government critics had been barred from SABC airwaves continued to generate controversy in 2007; in March, prominent civic actors—including the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI)—accused the government of blacklisting and purging critics from the SABC. Also in March, a well-known radio personality at SABC, John Perlman, resigned. Though Perlman himself made no statement, it is believed that his departure was linked to his on-air accusations that outspoken critics of the government were being muzzled at SABC. In July, the SABC dropped legal action to prevent the screening of a documentary about President Mbeki; the SABC-commissioned film had twice been canceled from screening on state television.

Most South Africans receive the news via radio outlets, most of which are 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, and low-power nonprofit radio stations are increasing in prevalence, though they continue to be difficult to maintain financially. While the SABC’s three stations claim most of the television market, the country’s two commercial television stations, and M-Net, are reaching ever greater proportions of the population. Internet access is unrestricted and growing rapidly (11.6 percent of the population are currently users), although many South Africans cannot afford the service fee.