South Africa | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

South Africa

South Africa

Freedom of the Press 2010

2010 Scores

Press Status

Partly Free

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


Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)


Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

Status change explanation: South Africa declined from Free to Partly Free to reflect the threat posed by top government officials’ hostile rhetoric toward the media, as well as official encroachments on the editorial independence of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which dominates the national broadcast landscape. An additional factor behind the decline was the passage of the Film and Publications Act, which legitimizes some forms of prepublication censorship and creates a legal distinction between government-recognized publications and other outlets.
Freedoms of expression and of the press are protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice, and South Africa has vibrant press freedom advocacy and journalists’ organizations. Nevertheless, several apartheid-era laws and a 2004 Law on Antiterrorism permit authorities to restrict information about the police, national defense forces, prisons, and mental institutions, and to compel journalists to reveal sources. In September 2009, the controversial Film and Publications Amendment Act was implemented. Introduced by the Home Affairs Ministry to protect against child pornography and hate speech, the legislation was widely criticized by press freedom advocates as a means of prepublication censorship. The act requires any publisher not recognized by the press ombudsman—or any person who wishes to distribute, broadcast, or exhibit a film or game—to submit a wide range of potentially pornographic or violence-inciting materials to a government board, which can approve or ban them. Separately, in February, then president Kgalema Motlanthe refused to sign a version of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill because of a clause allowing Parliament to fire board members of the state-owned SABC or dismiss the entire board. An amended bill that requires “proper inquiry by Parliament” before such dismissals was pending at year’s end.

Government ministers and other political figures continued to display intolerance of media criticism in 2009. There has been an increase in the use of court interdictions and gag orders by both governmental and nonstate actors in recent years. Since 2005, the independent weekly and online daily Mail & Guardian has received at least three gag orders to stop reporting on corruption scandals. In December 2008, Jacob Zuma, president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, launched a US$700,000 defamation lawsuit against cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (known as Zapiro) for a September cartoon in the Sunday Times; the ongoing suit also targeted the Sunday Times itself and Johncom, the newspaper’s holding company. Journalists are occasionally harassed and assaulted.

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 U.S. State Department notes that 46.4 percent of South Africans have access to print media. Though a variety of publications exist, their content tends to lack diversity as a result of the concentration of ownership among large media groups. The SABC dominates broadcast media. While officially editorially independent, the SABC has come under fire for displaying a pro-ANC bias, for reflecting internal ANC rifts in its management struggles, and for practicing self-censorship. In April 2009, the SABC canceled a scheduled program on political satire that was inspired by the “Zapiro” controversy. After the Mail & Guardian posted a leaked copy of the program on its website, the SABC accused the paper of theft. In October, SABC internal auditors investigating the leak searched the offices of the broadcaster’s investigative reporting unit and subjected staff to lie-detector tests. Separately, the entire SABC board was dissolved by Parliament in 2009 amid a R839 million (US$100 million) loss for the 2008–09 fiscal year and wide-ranging reports of financial mismanagement. In December, a new 12-member board—headed by former minister of arts, culture, science, and technology Ben Ngubane—was appointed in consultation with opposition parties.

For primarily socioeconomic reasons, most South Africans receive the news via radio outlets, the majority of which are controlled by the SABC. While the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is involved in efforts to expand the number and broadcasting range of community radio stations, the process is slowed by lack of bandwidth and bureaucratic delays. The SABC’s three stations claim most of the television market, but the country’s two commercial television stations, and M-Net, are reaching growing proportions of the population. International broadcasts are unrestricted. According to governance watchdog Global Integrity, the government has threatened to withdraw advertising from newspapers that report on corruption and other scandals.

Internet access is unrestricted and increasing rapidly, with approximately 9 percent of the population enjoying regular access during 2009. However, access costs remain prohibitive for many South Africans.