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Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press 2017

South Africa


Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Freedom of the Press Scores

(0=Most Free, 100=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Internet Penetration Rate: 

Key Developments in 2016:

  • In July, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) ordered the reversal of a ban by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)—the public broadcaster—on footage of violent protests taking place during the run-up to local elections. Critics of the ban suggested that the broadcaster had enacted it in order to avoid coverage that could be unflattering to the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
  • Eight journalists fired for resisting the SABC’s ban successfully challenged their dismissal, but faced intimidation and physical attacks after they asked the Constitutional Court to order a parliamentary investigation into Parliament’s own oversight of the broadcaster.
  • Journalists covering the protests faced violence and intimidation from the police and protesters.
  • In September, the Supreme Court of Appeal handed down a significant judgment upholding the principle of an open Parliament and journalists’ right to report from inside the chamber.

Executive Summary

South Africa has a diverse and pluralistic media environment that is supported by several press freedom advocacy organizations that regularly challenge encroachments on media freedom. The courts and regulatory bodies have consistently reaffirmed freedom of the press and the right to information, handing down judgments and rulings in support of open and accountable government and media independence. However, concerns about press freedom have grown in recent years amid increasing government pressure on both state-run and independent outlets.

In May 2016, the SABC announced that it would no longer show footage of violent protests on its news programming, arguing that coverage of the unrest could encourage further violence. The move came amid demonstrations across the country against poor service delivery and lack of economic opportunity, which in many cases had culminated in property destruction and violent clashes between demonstrators and police. Many observers suspected that the SABC’s decision was meant to limit coverage that could reflect negatively on the ANC ahead of August local elections. In July, following a challenge by civil society groups, the ICASA ordered the SABC to reverse the ban.

Also in July, seven SABC journalists and one contracted freelance journalist were fired for protesting the broadcaster’s directive. The journalists, who became known as the “SABC 8,” were later reinstated after challenging their dismissal in the Labour Court. In October, the journalists filed an application with the Constitutional Court seeking a parliamentary investigation into Parliament’s own oversight of the SABC’s operations. In the following weeks, the journalists faced intimidation, death threats, and attempts at physical harm. The incidents included text messages containing death threats; break-ins and vandalism of homes and vehicles; and an attempt to ram one of the journalist’s cars as she was driving. Another journalist was shot at with ceramic bullets while driving at night.

On a positive note, in September 2016 the Supreme Court of Appeal invalidated two rules that had limited media coverage of activity in Parliament, upholding the principle of an open Parliament and journalists’ right to report from within. In its decision, the court overturned a rule that had prohibited the broadcast of footage depicting “grave disorder,” which in 2015 was invoked to block coverage of protesting opposition members being ejected from Parliament. It additionally ruled that the security service’s use of a signal-jamming system to prevent those inside Parliament from using mobile devices to communicate with anyone outside was unconstitutional. Both decisions came in response to a challenge by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and one independent media company of authorities’ conduct during President Jacob Zuma’s 2015 State of the Nation address.

Legal Environment: 13 / 30 (↑1)

Freedoms of expression and of the press are protected in the constitution and generally respected in practice. However, several apartheid-era laws and a 2004 Law on Antiterrorism have been used by authorities to restrict reporting on the security forces, prisons, and any sites or institutions deemed by authorities to be important to the “national interest.”

Under one such law, the National Key Points Act of 1980, journalists are barred from accessing or photographing areas deemed of interest to national security. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of locations designated under the act, including Zuma’s private residence. Previously, the list of sites classified as national key points was not publicly available, and journalists risked unknowingly violating the act, for which they could be arrested. However, in January 2015 the minister of police released the full list of national key points to the public in response to a freedom of information application from a coalition of civil society groups.

In May 2016, the Civilian Secretariat for Police introduced for public comment the draft Critical Infrastructure Protection Bill, which is intended to replace the National Key Points Act. Concerns were raised that it similarly does not provide for openness and transparency.

Journalists and media outlets at times face the threat of legal action as a result of their work, particularly when reporting on prominent political or business figures. Civil defamation cases are occasionally brought against members of the press. Prosecutions for criminal defamation are rare. In the most recent case, a 2014 ruling by the Pretoria High Court overturned the 2013 conviction of Cecil Motsepe, a journalist with the Sowetan newspaper. However, the court also ruled that the country’s criminal defamation law is constitutional. In September 2015, the ANC announced plans to introduce legislation that would effectively abolish criminal defamation in South Africa, though no draft of a bill was made public by the end of 2016.

The constitution protects the right of access to information, and the 2000 Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) is designed to implement this guarantee. The PAIA allows citizens to request information from public—and in some cases private—bodies, but it often falls short in practice as requests are frustrated by bureaucratic resistance.

Efforts by the ANC to replace the self-regulating Press Council (PCSA) and press ombudsman with a state-run media tribunal have been thwarted for the time being by PCSA reforms, including the establishment in late 2012 of a system of “independent co-regulation” that features equal public and media representation on the council, under the chairmanship of a retired judge. The overhaul also provided the public with greater legal redress, such as the ability to appeal directly to ordinary courts; an expanded definition of complainant that includes not just those directly affected by a story, but also public advocates; a clearer hierarchy of sanctions for violations; and a ban on hate speech and “harmful” coverage of children.

Despite the independent co-regulation reforms introduced by the PCSA, as well as lobbying by media rights groups, the ANC has not abandoned the idea of a state-run media appeals tribunal. In October 2015, the party’s 4th National General Council renewed calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the desirability and feasibility of such a tribunal. However, Parliament had yet to initiate this process by the end of 2016.

In March 2015, the Film and Publications Board issued a draft set of regulations on internet content that attracted widespread public criticism. Among other restrictions, the regulations would require web users, including bloggers, who wish to distribute films, games, or certain publications to register with the board as an online distributor or face criminal penalties. In July 2015, the PCSA negotiated the exemption of its members from the Film and Publication Board regulations in light of its expanded system of co-regulation that applies to online content. A bill to implement the regulations was approved by the cabinet in August 2015 and submitted to Parliament in November 2015. In the face of intense criticism, a revised bill was drafted and sent out for comment by the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Communications in October 2016. The bill had yet to pass at the end of the year.

Political Environment: 20 / 40 (↓3)

While officially independent in its editorial policies, the SABC has come under fire for displaying a pro-ANC bias and practicing self-censorship. In recent years, a number of SABC programs have been canceled due to political considerations, and prepublication censorship of critical reporting on the ANC and Zuma has increased. In November 2015, the cabinet approved the draft Broadcasting Amendment Act, which aims primarily to reduce the number of nonexecutive members of the SABC board from 12 to nine, and to transfer the power to make recommendations for board appointments from Parliament to the communications minister, resulting in an increase in executive control. The bill had yet to win approval in Parliament by the end of 2016.

In May 2016, the SABC issued a directive to not broadcast visuals of violent protests on any of its news bulletins. The SABC argued that airing such visuals would publicize and promote violence. However, it is widely suspected that the decision was meant to limit negative publicity for the ANC ahead of the August 2016 local elections. In July, following a challenge by civil society groups, ICASA ordered the SABC to reverse its policy.

In September 2016, the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal of the November 2015 decision to invalidate the appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as the chief operating officer of SABC. Later in the month, however, Motsoeneng was given the position of SABC group executive for corporate affairs. In October, an ad hoc commission of inquiry into the SABC board’s fitness to hold office was convened by Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications. By the end of December, all board members had resigned; a report by the commission was expected to be presented to Parliament in early 2017. The same month, the Western Cape High Court ruled that Motsoeneng’s appointment to his new post was also unlawful.

The overall objectivity of the news media is affected by the growing share of private outlets owned by government allies. For example, a number of key staff members have left the newspaper publisher Independent News and Media South Africa, claiming political interference after the company was acquired by the ANC-connected Sekunjalo Investments in 2013.

A recent trend in politically motivated dismissals of editors of prominent news publications continued in 2016. Steven Motale, the editor of the Citizen, was fired in November 2016 after publishing investigations into alleged corruption by a former finance minister and reports critical of the current finance minister and ANC chief whip.

In September 2016, the Supreme Court of Appeal found that a parliamentary rule restricting the live broadcast of incidents of “grave disorder” violated the right to an open Parliament. The judgment was the result of an initial application to determine the constitutionality of a signal jamming device used by the security services without the speaker of the National Assembly’s authorization, as well as the restriction of a live television feed, during Zuma’s 2015 State of the Nation address.

Journalists and editors working for private media organizations are free to publish content without any threat of official censorship.

In July 2016, seven journalists employed by SABC and one contracted journalist (commonly referred to as the “SABC 8”) were fired for protesting the introduction of the directive not to air images of violent protests on any news broadcasts. The SABC 8 were subsequently reinstated after challenging their dismissal in the Labour Court. In October 2016, the journalists filed an application with the Constitutional Court seeking to enforce Parliament’s duty to hold the SABC accountable for its decisions.

The majority of South Africans access news and information through the SABC. Citizens also obtain information from the numerous privately owned print, radio, and subscription television outlets. Online news sources are gaining in popularity, although the high cost of data remains a limiting factor for the majority of the population.

Journalists attempting to cover sensitive news stories sometimes face obstacles including unlawful arrests or physical attacks. Following the October 2016 decision to seek a Constitutional Court intervention against the mismanagement of the SABC, the SABC 8 journalists were the targets of intimidation, death threats, and attempts at physical harm. The incidents included text messages containing death threats, break-ins and damage of homes and cars, the cutting of electric wires on car brakes, and an attempt to ram one of the journalist’s cars as she was driving.

In June 2016, several journalists were threatened with violence by police and members of the public, and were prevented from taking photos and videos, during protests and looting of foreign-owned businesses that occurred in Pretoria. The protests stemmed from the ANC’s unpopular decision to choose the provincial leadership’s mayoral candidate over the nominee of local members.

Economic Environment: 10 / 30

The print media continue to be dominated by four companies: Avusa, Independent News and Media, Media24, and Caxton/CTP. A number of private investigative newspapers—most notably the Mail & Guardian, the City Press, the Sunday Times, and the online Daily Maverick newspaper—remain sharply critical of the government, political parties, and other societal actors. However, print media are consumed in large part by more urban, wealthier South Africans. The majority of the population receives news via radio and television outlets, and the SABC reaches the largest audiences by far. The public broadcaster’s three free-to-air television stations and the privately owned free-to-air station e.TV claim most of the market, though the country’s main subscription satellite television service, DSTV, continues to expand. International broadcasts are unrestricted, but they are often dependent on subscription television services for distribution.

Community broadcasters also serve as an important source of local information. More than 180 community radio outlets operate nationally, and there are a handful of community television stations. Despite robust state support, many community broadcasters are burdened with increasing financial difficulties that threaten their long-term sustainability. In July 2015, the Department of Communications issued a Draft Community Broadcast Support Scheme intended to expand the resources available to community stations, though the plan had yet to be implemented by the end of 2016.

The production and distribution of news remains generally free, and media outlets are not arbitrarily restricted in serving their intended audiences through print, radio, television and online platforms.

In March 2015, the South African Press Association (SAPA), then the country’s only independent wire service, closed down due to financial problems. SAPA had been under increasing financial pressure as four of the larger media organizations withdrew their support over the previous two years. Sekunjalo Investments acquired SAPA’s assets and set up its own wire service, the African News Agency (ANA). Media24 also launched its own newswire and syndication service, News24Wire.

Internet access is expanding rapidly, and more people are able to reach the medium from mobile devices than from personal computers. As of 2016, around 54 percent of the South African population had access to the internet. Usage is hampered by high costs and the fact that most content is in English, an obstacle for those who speak one of the country’s 10 other official languages. Content in local languages is growing, however, especially on social media.