In his weekly letter, President Cyril Ramaphosa reflected on how media freedom in South Africa has changed since the days of apartheid and the challenges the industry faces today. The president seemingly chose this topic because Freedom month has just drawn to a close and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its 2021 World Press Freedom Index.  

MEDIA FREEDOM IN BAD SHAPE ACROSS THE WORLD

Ramaphosa said we live in a country where all citizens are able to freely articulate their views, opinions and dissatisfaction without fear of retribution but this was not always the case. “As we conclude Freedom Month, we recall how far we have come from the days where social protest by artists attracted banning orders, and critical reporting by journalists risked imprisonment or the closure of publications,” said the president in his letter on Monday, 3 May.

The 2021 report by RSF examined media freedom in 180 countries and territories, found that journalism is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries, and constrained in 59 more, which means that journalism is in terrible shape in 73% of the countries evaluated.

The data also indicates that there is deterioration in people’s access to information and obstacles to news coverage are becoming more common – exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust barometer, nearly 60% of people surveyed in 28 countries believe journalists attempt to mislead the public, on purpose, by reporting information they know to be false.

“What is worrying is that media freedom has deteriorated under the COVID-19 pandemic, with the various restrictions put in place having seemingly been used to curtail media activity in several places,” said Ramaphosa.

RSF secretary-general said journalism “is the best vaccine against disinformation” but its production and distribution are too often blocked by political, economic and even cultural factors

SA PRESS FREEDOM ‘GUARANTEED BUT FRAGILE’, SAYS RSF

The media freedom report said the South African constitution protection protects press freedom and the country is home to an established investigative journalism culture but it once again criticised the “apartheid-era legislation and terrorism laws” that are still in effect and are used to limit coverage of government institution in the name of national interests.

“The state security agency spies on some journalists and taps their phones. Others are harassed and subjected to intimidation campaigns if they try to cover certain subjects involving ruling ANC, government finances, the redistribution of land to the black population or corruption,” said RSF.

The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) has also accused the Crime Intelligence Division of the South African Police Service (SAPS) of keeping tabs on journalists recently. The Forum also condemned political interference in newsrooms, saying that history has shown that when politicians interfere with the inner workings of newsrooms, independence is eroded.

The report also noted an increase in abuse suffered by women journalists in South Africa, including insults, harassment and threats on social media. Ramaphosa said this intimidation – especially threats of sexual violence – is a matter of great concern that cannot be allowed.

South Africa fell by one place and ranked 32nd in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Norway finished top of the pile while Eritrea finished last. The African countries with better press freedom than South Africa are Namibia (24), Cape Verde (27) and Ghana (30). Economic heavyweights like the United States (44), France (34) and the United Kingdom (33) ranked lower.

RAMAPHOSA: MEDIA HAS PLAYED A ‘PIVOTAL ROLE’ IN UNCOVERING CORRUPTION

Ramaphosa praised the South African media for its pivotal role bringing corruption and state capture to light but added that corruption is not the only challenge the country faces.

“The daily lives of many South Africans are still affected by poverty, inequality and underdevelopment, poor service delivery, and a lack of access to opportunities,” said the president.

Ramaphosa said if the media is to “remain true to its responsibility to support democracy” journalists must report on the “other issues of the day”, including gender-based violence, crime and “social ills like substance abuse.”

“It is in the best interests of all who love this country and wish for it to succeed that our media is supported, and not hindered in its work. As a society, let us continue to work together to jealously safeguard our country’s media freedom. It was hard-won, and without it, we cannot hope to flourish,” concluded the president.

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Presh JM Reporter

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