Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) annually releases its World Press Freedom Index (WPFI). This Index is an indication of the media freedom situation based on an assessment of a variety of factors, including independence of the media, the quality of the legislative framework in the concerned country and the safety of journalists therein. The 2017 WPFI says that press freedom has deteriorated in two-thirds of the world’s countries in the last period. This is attributable to factors such as dictatorships, and democracies clamping down on press freedom. In addition, high-level politicians use their power to quash reports that paint them and their governments in a negative light, more-so in nations which suffered from unstable economies or in those where elections were held. Another threat to press freedom is ‘fake news’, a relatively new means by which various sources misinform the public, spread propaganda and discredit genuine news stories. There has been a spike in such incidents globally and South Africa is not immune to these threats, as was seen in the recent Huffington Post incident.

This year, the WPFI ranked South Africa 31 out of 180 countries, compared to 39 out of 180 in 2016. This means the country jumped up a notable 8 positions and, all things considered, is an encouraging indicator of our press freedom. The country also received a global score of 20.12 in 2017, compared to 21.92 in 2016, where the 0 is the freest and 100 is the least free. These numbers paint a picture that might lead one to believe that there is little to be concerned about in the country. That, however, would be a mistake. Despite this high ranking, the WPFI describes South Africa’s media independence as “fragile” and the South Africa is colour-coded yellow, which represents “fairly good” to “problematic”.

This fragility is due to numerous factors. The most notable has to be the embattled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The public broadcaster, which reaches by far the widest audience in the country (over 30 million people), has been at the forefront of negative coverage in the last year. Consider its belligerent litigation on behalf of its disgraced (but unrepentant) former Chief Operations Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng – at the expense of the taxpayers. All this despite repeated court rulings that found his employment at the SABC unconstitutional, irrational and unlawful, plus the report of the former Public Protector ordering a disciplinary hearing – which has yet to take place. Since his suspension, it has come to light that his ill-conceived 90% local content policy cost the SABC over R200 million rand, and is directly linked to a decrease in viewers and the SABC’s inability to pay its suppliers, contractors and employees.

It has also become common for the media to receive hostile reactions for negative coverage of issues related to the disagreements within the governing party, the President’s personal affairs and misbehaviour on the part of Members of Parliament. One has only to look at the press treatment during the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) debacle, and during this year’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) to realise that the state of media freedom in the country is dire. Other isolated but significant incidents – such as the President’s VIP Protectors taking a journalist’s phone and deleting everything on it at an event in Johannesburg – must be considered. Furthermore, investigative journalists, amaBhungane lodged a complaint in the High Court about the interception of one of their journalist’s cellphones, and there was a break-in at the SABC’s parliamentary offices – with no clear motive. There have also been calls for the external regulation of the media by the governing party, as well as suggestions from civil society that the SABC be privatised to protect its integrity. This points to a decline in faith in media integrity and credibility from various fronts.

Another factor that may have contributed to the country’s rise on the WPFI is the deplorable state of press freedom in other nations, thus paving the way for South Africa. Consider nations such as Turkey, where President Erdogan has consistently, over the years, arrested journalists who report negatively about the regime. The country is now the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Freedom House also commented on the state of affairs in Ethiopia, where the media environment is one of the most restrictive in sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa, when one considers the way the media was used in the pre-1994 era – as a tool for suppression of opposition, and for the dissemination of propaganda – press freedom cannot be treated as an afterthought. The media today operates as an independent watchdog over the state, and this watchdog also needs protection.

It remains to be seen whether the SABC will make a turnaround. The new Minister of Communications, Ayanda Dlodlo, together with the qualified Interim Board at the SABC, are already paving the way for change at the Broadcaster. Reports of a reversal of the 90% local content editorial policy are making the rounds, and perhaps Motsoeneng will finally appear before the disciplinary committee. It is clear, as with all the rights in the Constitution, that many hands must work together to protect the freedom of the press and ensure its realisation.

Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights