So this is democracy? A report on media freedom in Southern Africa

By Mvuzo Ponono

A report by the Media Institute of South Africa notes that the country has a high prevalence of fake news especially in social media and there exists a “heavy stench of corruption”. This situation is worsened by the fact that the South Africa is grappling with the consequences of state capture, looting of state resources by politically connected individuals, politicians, state officials and corporate interests.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) is a 25-year-old organisation that advocates for media freedom and freedom of expression in southern Africa. The institute is a media freedom watchdog that “issues alerts on media freedom violations, condemnations of killings, assaults, criminal charges and other forms of unjustified attacks on journalists, including restrictions on access to information”.

The research and analysis that makes up a recent report titled So This Is Democracy? is based on daily monitoring and other research gathered in the 11 Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries in 2017. Overall MISA describes the work it does as focused on ensuring “sustainable, lasting changes to the media landscape in the southern Africa region that makes countries safer places for journalists to work and more conducive for media freedom and freedom of expression”.

The report starts by stating: “A closer look reveals an environment for media and citizenry that is highly volatile, hotly contested and often under pressure”. The media landscape is further described as a place “where the insidious and subtle erosion of free speech rights is compounded both by the media’s struggle for economic survival and its relevance to citizens who all too easily disown their media and the critical role it plays in keeping power to account”.

The two worst performing countries are Zambia and Tanzania (described as democracies “gone amok”). The incidents listed in Zambia include the death of a University student at a protest, a bombing of a media house and arson attacks on public installations. Events when checked against the South African context are not uncommon or out of place.

Safety of journalists

Southern Africa recorded fewer incidents of attacks against journalists in 2017, however the report acknowledges a steep increase in the brutality of those attacks. Many such attacks “emanated from successful anti-media campaigns by populist political and social leaders. Campaigns designed to sow distrust of mainstream media culminated in physical violence especially against journalists covering street protests or demonstrations”.

Free speech online

The impediment to free expression extends to the growing digital and online spaces. “The inclination by African governments to shut down the internet or suspend social media sites and messaging apps continued in 2017…under the guise of ensuring protection of citizens from computer related crimes, numerous governments across southern Africa either tabled or enacted legislation to regulate online content”. In most instances, such laws were “poorly conceived, often violating citizens privacy and criminalising free speech”.

Beyond the ethical red flags, the reason for concern when it comes to freedom of expression and access online include the fact that internet shutdowns hamper “human rights such as freedom of expression and assembly, access to information and political rights. They also come at a huge cost to African economies. Furthermore, and this is a cause for alarm in cash-strapped African countries, the report estimated that digital interruptions came at a cost of nearly US Dollar 11 million in 2017”. One can only imagine the cost to freedom of expression and the economy that comes with South Africa’s high data prices.

South Africa

The focused review of the country states that although South Africa’s Constitution protects freedom of expression and media freedom, the country labours under an assessment by the New York based Freedom House that the nation and its media are only “partly free”.

According to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) at a conference in 2017, “conditions for media freedom in South Africa had deteriorated, with the government considering a range of measures that would intimidate the press, promote self-censorship and silence criticism”. The country’s political and social atmosphere has also been described as “toxic”. In addition, the report notes that South Africa has a high prevalence of fake news especially in social media and there exists a “heavy stench of corruption”. This situation is worsened by the fact that South Africa is grappling with the consequences of “state capture”, which is looting of state resources by politically connected individuals, politicians, state officials and corporate interests.

Negatives

• Print media had a tough year with attacks by police on journalists covering protests, obstruction by the police of journalists and photographers at crime and accident scenes as well as threats made to journalists on assignment by demonstrators and members of the public.

• There were also demonstrations and pickets outside journalists’ homes, death threats levelled at Sipho Masondo of City Press, former SABC journalist Vuyo Mvoko and Sunday Times’ Mzilikazi wa Afrika; theft of mobile phones and equipment while on assignment, with photographers the frequent victims, and obfuscation by government officials and business people when requests for information were made.

• Analysts predict that South Africa’s 2017 Cybercrimes and Cyber Security Bill is likely to lead to further deterioration in media freedom. The draft affords opportunity for repressive implementation, as well as enhanced investigative and surveillance powers for security agents.

Positives

• South Africa’s political scene underwent a dramatic change in February 2018 with the resignation of President Jacob Zuma in response to calls for him to step down from the ANC, Opposition members and the public. Cyril Ramaphosa, who is seen as more liberal than Zuma, was then appointed as the new President. Ramaphosa is described by analysts as much more attuned to an open society than Zuma and more committed to it ideals.

• Despite the pressures, which include withdrawal of advertising spend by the Zuma led government, the media, especially the daily and weekly newspapers, have performed a sterling service for the country in publicising stories about state capture, corruption, abuse of power and questionable conduct of politicians and officials.

• Complaints by the public to the Press Council and its Press Ombudsman that publications contravened the Press Code totalled 499, 37 fewer than the 536 received in 2016 and 92 fewer than the 591 received in 2015. Among the findings of the Press Ombudsman against the media was a strongly-worded order on the Huffington Post South Africa, launched in 2016 by the Media24 publishing house, to apologise to the public for publishing a ‘’racist and sexist’’ blog titled Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise? that was viewed as inciting hate speech.

• A parliamentary ad hoc committee had conducted hearings into the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which started late in 2016 and ended early in 2017. The institution was subjected to systematic, sustained and well-researched scrutiny on a wide range of key aspects that had led to it being labelled an organisation in the clutch of an unprofessional clique who used it to pursue questionable interests. In addition, the SABC board, which had countenanced these activities was dismissed and replaced first by an interim and then a full-term board which drastically cut the losses and showed clear signs of wanting to be accountable.

Download the report and learn more about MISA here.

More stories in Issue 104

Contributors

Mvuzo Ponono

Mvuzo Ponono is a Xhosa man from the Eastern Cape, now based at the University of the Free State. His research interests include audience, and postcolonial studies. His MA examined the influence of a township family context on the interpretation of a health education television programme. His current PhD research is an ethnographic study on […]

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