Written by Julia Traunspurger

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  • Area: 1.219.090 square kilometers
  • Population: approx. 54 Mio.
  • Capital: Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Cape Town
  • State form: presidential republic
  • Official language: Afrikaans, English and nine more
  • Religion: Christian (79 per cent, 2015)

  • Flag of South Africa

    After the apartheid era, South Africa tried to build a democratic and free media system. The Constitution of 1997 provides and guarantees freedom of expression, media freedom and independence and it contains a lot of legislation that regulates the media. However, it still contains some old apartheid-era laws and some newer laws limiting the autonomy of journalists. All of these laws were made with the intention to be in the “national interest”. One major part of the legislation was the foundation of a public broadcaster, the SABC, which is now subject of ongoing discussions and criticism for reporting in favour of the ANC government. The debate includes a different understanding of the media’s role ‑ whether it should be a “nation builder” or a “watchdog”. This discussion also has been the reason for a lot of civil groups fighting for media freedom and against the governmental plans to modify the self-regulating system. Besides the public broadcaster that dominates the radio and television sector, there is a large number of privately owned media. The ownership is highly concentrated within four oligopolies groups. However, journalists’ autonomy is not only restricted by laws and ownership, but also by an increasing economic pressure, leading to commercialisation of the media.
    Communication policy and regulations
    After a long period of apartheid, that had huge legal and social impacts on media freedom, the primary goal of the new constitution adopted in 1997 was to build and preserve “democratic communication”. Two key features were the support a new black economic empowerment and the fight against the old and traditional inequalities in ownership, representation and access (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 193). The new constitution protects and guarantees media freedom, freedom of expression, access to information and the independence of broadcasting legislation (ibid: 192). Freedom of expression and of the press are protected under section 16(1) of the Constitution and generally respected in practice (Freedom House, 2016). However, some forms of expression, such as hate speech are excluded in section 16(2). The rights to freedom of expression are not absolute and are balanced with the rights to equality and dignity in section 36 (Milne & Taylor, 2006: 14). The constitution also names some articles to be suspended during a state of emergency. However, even if some rights (such as equality and the prohibition of slavery) may not be derogated, freedom of expression is one that could be during a state of emergency (KAS, 2003: 71).

    Potential legal threats to media freedom
    Compared to other countries in the region, South Africa is one of the few that does not have excessive laws restricting journalistic practice, a criminal defamation act (such as in Ghana) or other insult laws (FES, 2013: 17). However, in 2013, African Media Barometer criticized three main points: First, freedoms related to the media are not enforced, which means there is no obligation by the state to promote and enforce these rights. Secondly, there is only a vague definition of the limitations of freedom of expression. Third, South Africa still has some repressive apartheid-era laws (e.g. the National Key Points Act, the Defence Act and the Prisons Act). All of these acts have the potential to curtail freedom of expression (FES, 2013: 9) and have already “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’” (Freedom House, 2016).

    The National Key Points Act, for example, prohibits journalists to access, photograph or conduct investigations in several locations (e.g. President Zuma’s home, which was controversially remodeled at quite a high cost of over US$ 200 million). In January 2015, the Ministry of Police released a list of National Key Points after Right2Know (R2K) and the South African History Archive (SAHA) started a campaign referring to its right to transparency (Banjac et al., 2016: 16; Right to Know 2014, 2015). Before the release, a journalist could be easily arrested for unknowingly accessing restricted locations. Additionally, the number of locations designated to the act has increased, lacking any clear concept of what exactly defines a “national key point” (Freedom House, 2016).

    The reasoning behind the Law on Antiterrorism is quite similar. By restricting journalists’ reporting on security or penal institution this law prevents threats to the ‘national interest’. Consequently, the coverage of business or political actors brings the risk of legal action (defamation) or fines (Banjac et al., 2016: 16). The Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) isn’t a real potential threat, it rather could be a possibility for journalists to point out their right to information. PAIA is designed to guarantee members of the public the right to request access to information held by the state or any private and public institution (such as it was the case for the list of the National Key Points). But in reality, this right was granted only in few cases and accessing it was a slow and stalled process. This makes it almost impossible for journalists to work on investigative stories without an extended deadline (Banjac et al., 2016: 17; IREX, 2013: 378; Freedom House, 2016).

    In direct conflict with PAIA is the Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB or Secrecy Bill) (Banjac et al., 2016: 16). For several years, this law has been considered by the government and the National Assembly. It would “grant state agencies broad authority to classify a wide range of information as being (again) in the ‘national interest’” (Freedom House, 2016) and therefore top secret. Journalists found in possession of information deemed by state agencies as communicating issues of ‘national interest’ are threatened with up to 25 years of imprisonment (Banjac et al., 2016: 17). This law would criminalize activities essential to investigative journalism, therefore “how this bill is interpreted will clearly have consequences for the ways in which the media report on issues such as crime, corruption or protests” (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 194). In April 2015, the bill was voted through parliament and passed on to President Zuma to sign the law. Being discussed since 2008, it is still unclear how and if the bill will be adopted within the next few months or years (Louw, 2015).

    In 2015, two new drafts were introduced: Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill for public comment and the Film and Publications Board issued a draft set of regulations on internet content. Both have some aspects they have been criticized for, but because their implementation is too new it is not sure if and which one of them will have impacts on media freedom (Freedom House, 2016).

    Legislation that governs the media
    Besides general laws, there exist more specific laws and authorities regulating broadcast or print media. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa established in 2002 “is responsible for regulating the telecommunications, broadcasting and postal industries in the public interest and ensure affordable services of a high quality” (ICASA, 2016). Its responsibility is also licensing and enforcing compliance with rules and regulations (Wigston, 2009: 1186). ICASA is criticized for its poor regulation work and its regulatory oversight over the public broadcaster SABC, resulting in an ongoing political interference (FES, 2013: 10). It is said that ICASA failed to ensure diversity (e.g. in the television sector). Furthermore, it was quite unsuccessful in fulfilling its role “as a monitor of local content on public commercial or community broadcast stations to assess whether the stations are adhering to their license conditions” (ibid.).

    For broadcasting regulation, there are two acts: The Electronic Communications Act (2006) and the Broadcasting Act (1999). On paper, both set out the three tiers of broadcasting: public, commercial and community. The importance of ownership diversity and content is emphasized. However, in reality, these are not well implemented. Especially in the commercial sector, there is only little diversity (FES, 2013: 48). Nevertheless, there is much authority which aims to promote media development and diversity ‑ the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) (FES, 2003: 81). Its key function “is to encourage ownership and control of media by historically disadvantaged communities, language and cultural groups” (Milne & Taylor, 2006: 14) by offering those financial and infrastructural help and advice (Wigston, 2009: 1185).

    When discussing media legislation, it is inevitable to take a look at the public broadcaster SABC. Three acts of legislation make sure that the SABC is independent. “The SABC’s mandate as a public broadcaster is to encourage the development of South African expression in programming that, inter alia, reflects South African attitudes and advances the national and public interest” (Milne & Taylor, 2006: 14). Unfortunately, the SABC is heavily criticized and failed many of these aims. A response to the deep SABC crisis was the Public Service Broadcasting Bill (PSB Bill) in 2009 (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 194). The main criticism was the perceived bias towards the ANC government. There were rumors of self-censorship through omission, blacklisting and biased reporting. A historical fear of a ruling party turning the broadcaster into its own special propaganda machine and an increasingly commercialized media environment led to ongoing discussions and an outcry for a new reform (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 194). The PSB Bill proposed a radical change in the funding model, but critics argued this would not change the main problem of the public broadcaster and it would even have headed for a complete editorial independence meltdown if the bill was enacted. That is why it was abandoned (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 195).

    The press is mainly self-regulated by the Press Council and the press ombudsman (Wigston, 2009: 1199). It was established in 1996 to avoid an exclusive state regulation. The Press Council has built its own Press Code and led reforms of the co-regulation system “which allow the public and media equal representation within the council and greater opportunity to appeal directly to ordinary courts” (Banjac et al., 2016: 15). The Press Council is criticized by the ANC for being “toothless” with no power to sanction the press in a significant way (Daniels, 2013: 46). To prevent the government suggestion of a statutory media regulation body, the Media Appeals Tribunal, a system of independent co-regulation, was established in 2012 (Banjac et al., 2016: 15; Freedom House, 2016).

    Media codes of conduct
    As seen above South Africa’s media system is highly legalised. However, there are also codes of conduct for self-regulation. All in all, there are three codes in place that address broadcast and print media. For broadcast media: the Code of Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) and the Broadcasting Monitoring and Complaints Commission Code (BMCC). The first is a voluntary code administered by the BCCSA and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the industry body for the broadcasting sector. The latter is a statuary code administered by the BMCC under the IBA Act (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 193; KAS, 2003: 94-95). For the print media sector: the Press Code of Professional Practice (‘the Press Code’). This is a voluntary code administered by the Press Ombudsman, which has now been revised to a poster written in plain English (FES, 2013: 61). Especially the Press Council focuses on the regulation of an ethical conduct (Banjac et al. 2016: 15). The purpose of all codes is to lay down standards of conduct for broadcasters operating in South Africa (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 193).

    In the World Press Freedom Index 2016, South Africa was ranked 39, the same position as in 2015. Freedom House (2016) classified South Africa as “partly free”; both referring to the laws from the apartheid era, the 2004 anti-terrorism law and the all-time reason of “national interest” for trying to limit media freedom.
    Media offers
    The constitutional aim was to build a “democratic communication” base that would facilitate developing diversity. In fact, this process has been very slowly. Ownership is highly concentrated and there is still no real racial and gender diversity. Ownership and top management are largely occupied by white males and the gap between the urban-based newsrooms and the rural areas grows (Banjac et al., 2016: 2). “The mainstream media in South Africa, dominated by four print media oligopolies, one dominant public broadcaster, one commercial free-to-air television and two satellite television companies, provide very little space for various marginalised groups like women, social movements, community-based organisations and rural people” (FES, 2013: 11).

    Those four print media companies are the Times Media Group, Independent News and Media, Naspers/Media 24 and Caxton/CTP (Wigston, 2009: 1196). Even though South Africa has a broad range of individual newspaper titles today (OMD, 2016: 5), 90 per cent of the print sector are in the hand of the big four (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 183). There are also a few smaller media outlets. One of the most controversial is Infinity Media, which is a joint venture between India’s Essel Media and Oakbay Investments. It is owned by the Gupta Family, being close friends with President Zuma (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 184). This might be one explanation why Infinity Media has managed to attract immense amounts of government spending. In return Gupta titles are “unapologetically pro-government and pro-ANC” (De Wet, 2013). De Wet (2013) describes the ownership as varied ‑ some are closely-held private companies, some have empowerment owners and others are foreign-owned such as the influential Mail & Guardian, which is Zimbabwe owned.

    Ownership structures and the respective changes have brought growing political interference with them. In 2013, the change in ownership of Newspaper Publisher Independent News and Media South Africa resulted in several journalists or editors leaving or being fired. These staff members claimed political interference after the company was acquired by the ANC-connected Sekunjalo Investments (Freedom House, 2016).

    The print sphere has not experienced a similar growth as the broadcasters or the internet ‑ the number of dailies and weeklies stagnates (OMD, 2015; OMD, 2016: 5). The print media and the government have a historically tense relationship. During apartheid, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, alternative press outlets played a huge role for mobilising the opposition. Today, the four big print companies are a ‘thorn’ in the governments’ side. The main reason is the anti-ANC biased coverage of corruption and scandals. This discontent resulted in calls for more stringent regulation of the press in form of a state-regulated media appeals tribunal (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 184). Important newspapers are: The Star (Independent Newspaper and Media), Sunday Times (Times Media Group), Daily Sun (Naspers/Media 24) and The Citizen (Caxton/CTP) (Wigston, 2009: 1196-1197). Beside the four groups, there is a number of private investigative newspapers, such as the Mail & Guardian, the City Press, the Sunday Times and the online newspaper Daily Maverick ‑ all are quite critical of the government (Freedom House, 2016). Print media are consumed in large part by wealthier, more urban South Africans (Freedom House, 2016). Even though the number of newspaper titles is high, access is often difficult, especially in rural areas and the distribution of the languages is not fair. Though only 25 per cent of the population is English-Speaking, the newspapers are mainly published in English and access to a newspaper is highest among coloured, Indian and white and lowest among black South Africans ‑ which is contrary to the population (OMD, 2016: 4-5; Milton & Fourie, 2015: 182).

    The majority of the population receives news via television and radio. In 2015, for the first time ever, access to radio was at the same level as television (OMD, 2016: 5). With a listening population of over 30 million and a number of radio stations of over 240, the audience listens to the radio for an average of 3.5 hours a day (Banjac et al., 2016: 9). Over 90 per cent of South Africans above the age of 15 are watching television daily, making it one of the largest television audiences in Africa (OMD, 2016: 5). The most important radio and television stations are all run by the public broadcaster SABC, which reaches by far the largest audience (Freedom House, 2016). After the apartheid era, they wanted to build a public broadcaster, which is free from propaganda and state-control. Therefore, there are different laws and acts to regulate the SABC (see also section 3). Because of the Broadcasting Act (1999) the state is the shareholder of 100 per cent and SABC was restructured into two arms: commercial and public services. It was transformed into a national public broadcaster funded via advertising, TV licence fees and sponsorship revenues among other business services (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 185). The same act proclaimed that 50 per cent of all SABC programs should be produced in South Africa. The public broadcaster focus on African languages making SABC channels a popular choice for listeners and viewers (ibid: 186-187). SABC has faced a lot of critics starting with its dual system making it ineffective with a maximum of bureaucracy (Wigston, 2009: 1191). Besides this, its bad balance with conflicting demands of the public service mandate and commercialism, SABC is also criticized for being the government-mouthpiece, its financial mismanagement, irregular appointments of senior staff and self-censorship (ibid: 1192; Banjac et al., 2016: 2). The SABC is still seen as the main tool with the aim to promote nation building (Wigston, 2009: 1192). Besides the SABC, there is a wide number of privately owned radio stations but, by far, all of them do not reach as many listeners as the SABC channels. Additionally, “many community broadcasters are burdened with increasing financial difficulties that threaten their long-term sustainability” (Freedom House, 2016).

    The internet access is expanding rapidly. In 2015, 53 per cent of the population had access to the internet, while more and more people are able to connect from mobile devices than from personal computers (Freedom House, 2016; OMD, 2016). However, access remains problematic due to high costs and the fact that most content is in English so that a large majority still has little or no access (Banjac et al., 2016: 25-26). Again, the penetration is higher in provinces with large cities than in less urbanized areas (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 190). In addition to money and language problems, computer literacy is low in general and in black communities in particular. As a result, South Africa’s most disadvantaged groups are still being “left out of the loop” (ibid: 191). Even if the net is generally free, open, diverse and active, there have been sporadic incidents in recent years (Freedom House, 2015a). The government does not have control over the internet but it showed the willingness to restrict access during certain events. One of those was President Zuma’s annual State of the Nation address. An active signal jammer was discovered during the speech in parliament. The jammer blocked mobile networks and internet signals for at least one hour ‑ leading to harsh criticism and discussion (Etheridge, 2015). The next outcry was because of leaked documents reported by Al Jazeera in March 2015, which are now known as the “Spy Cables”, leading to “increasing concerns over the government’s surveillance intentions and capabilities” (Jordan, 2015). Finally, there is a “scary new internet censorship law” (Kahn, 2015): This new Draft Online Regulation Policy was introduced by the Film and Publications Board in March 2015. The draft aims to “protect children from harmful online content by allowing the government to pre-censor or take-down existing content that fails to meet the board’s new classification requirements” (Freedom House, 2015a).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Role of the media
    The media’s position revolves around debates whether it should be acting in the “public” or in the “national” interest (Banjac et al., 2016: 1). National interest is often understood in the context of the apartheid-era, which means state-controlled media, therefore it is considered to be unfavourable by the media. However, the “public interest” or “marketplace for ideas” has also been criticized for its “potential to aggravate tensions and conflicts and privileging the voices of those who have access to mediated communication” (Wasserman, 2010: 568). Journalists see themselves as watchdogs and opposition to the government (ibid: 569). Since the end of apartheid, media has been both “a site and an agent for change” (Wasserman, 2010: 568). In many ways they have taken on the quasi-role of opposition to the ruling ANC due to a very weak political opposition. Consecutive, this encourages the government to legalize intervention plans in the media (ibid: 573). The government wants to see media and journalists promoting national development and cultural identity ‑ a guide dog rather than a watch dog (ibid: 569; Milton & Fourie, 2015: 181). The general public knows about the debates and is divided into the two camps. An interviewed female journalist explained it like this: on the one hand “communities value journalists and their work because they believe they are the ones who can help fight injustice and inequality. Journalists also help to see that they get service delivery e.g. sanitation, good education, health. On the other hand, a corrupt politician or business man would view a journalist as a nuisance as they are obliged to expose their wrong doings.”

    Salary, education and working conditions
    Journalists in South Africa do not need licences to practice their profession (Banjac et al., 2016: 23). The above cited interviewee reports that “almost all of the universities and private colleges offer journalism. They send their products to our organisations and other newsrooms for internship.” And in fact, there is a wide variety of possibilities for media training. Degrees in media studies or journalism are available at almost every university, some even offer post-graduate journalism degrees (FES, 2013: 69). That’s why a lot of professional journalists have a bachelor’s degree (Banjac et al., 2016: 22-23). Besides the university programs, some institutes offer a range of short courses for working journalists (such as the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism). Normally these courses are funded, but most must be paid for by the media houses or the journalists themselves. The SABC supports their employees very much by paying short-term courses. There are even bursaries to employees’ children who wish to study media. Unfortunately, “many of those who attended did not share the information they learned once they were back in their newsrooms” (FES, 2013: 69).

    The salary for journalists is quite a secret. There are discrepancies between commercial and community media and between men and women. In 2013, the average salary for men was about 2,000 US Dollar (Nevill, 2013; FES, 2016: 63). Generally, “women’s voices are under-represented in the media”, they are not in very effective positions or have much to say (IREX, 2013: 382). Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders report about an increase in the use of police violence, journalists facing physical attacks and unlawful arrests (RWB, 2016; Freedom House, 2016). The interviewed journalist reporting for an investigative online newspaper could only remember one case: “I only know of one incident where journalists from the Citizen were attacked in the wild coast (Xolobeni) because there is a fighting between pro and anti-mining”. However, there are reports about journalists who had to delete photos or recordings while covering sensitive news stories (Freedom House, 2016). Furthermore, when it comes to coverage stories about members of the ruling ANC party or even President Zuma, some members respond by calling to boycott the impacted newspaper (IREX, 2013: 373).

    However, the main problem for journalists and their working conditions is not discrimination or political regulation rather than economical pressure. After the end of apartheid and the opening of the media market, journalists had to face commercialization. Due to commercial pressure newsrooms have been radically rejuvenated and staff has been cut. Additionally, there has been an increase in tabloidization and erosion of investigative and in-depth reporting (Banjac et al., 2016: 20). Because of these changes, journalists have to deal with pressing deadlines and increasing workloads. They have to access the most available and reliable news sources and the articles are often superficial, sensational and lacking context and history (ibid: 23). This increasing commercial pressure makes it difficult to go after in-depth or investigative projects (Wasserman, 2010: 576).

    Self-regulation problems occur mainly in SABC by tending “not to be critical of the government, but rather represents it in a positive way through stories on development that the state is involved in” (FES, 2013: 41). Especially black journalists are expected to toe to the line and play their role in “nation building” (Wasserman, 2010: 573).

    Civil society and trade unions
    Journalists’ autonomy and freedom are mainly protected by trade unions and civil society groups. There are a number of media organisations and trade unions to support journalists. They protect the interests of the media and provide member services or focus on wage issues. The most important groups are the South African Editor’s Forum (SANEF), the National Community Radio Forum and the Association of Independent Publishers (AiP). Print Media South Africa (PMSA) “serves as an umbrella body to its constitute members” (IREX, 2013: 385) which are the Newspaper Association of South Africa, the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa, and AiP (FES, 2013: 65). Civil groups are mainly focusing on cases and questions about media freedom and upcoming laws (Milton & Fourie, 2015: 198). For example, the Right2Know Campaign, the Freedom of Expression Institute and the “SOS: Support Public Broadcasting” coalition all continue to challenge proposals by the government to transform the current self-regulated media system into one governed by statutory regulation (FES, 2013: 11; Banjac et al., 2016: 1).


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    Interviewed experts (remote via email)
    • An interview with a female Journalist working for an investigative online newspaper who wants to stay anonymous for security reasons has been conducted in August 2016.
    Recommended citation form
    Julia Traunspurger: South Africa. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. /southafrica (access date)

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