Eleven years have elapsed since the birth of the New South Africa.  The question that I would like to address this morning is:  How is freedom of the press faring eleven years after our first fully democratic elections?  According to our constitution:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes –

  1. freedom of the press and other media;  and the
  2. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas.

On the whole, we appear to have done quite well in living up to the ideals of the constitution.  Reporters Without Borders ranks SA’s press as the 26th most free in the world.  This means that South Africa’s press is substantially more free than the press in countries which are often regarded as paragons of liberty – such as the United Kingdom – which is ranked 28th, Spain which is ranked 39th and Australia which limps in at 41st position – making this one of the few areas where we successfully compete against the Aussies!.

According to Adlai Stevenson “the free press is the mother of all our liberties and our progress under liberty”.  Thomas Jefferson said that “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.”


So it is clear that liberty of the press and democracy are inextricably intertwined


Democracy literally means rule by the people. This proposition simply, logically and necessarily requires:


However, all these freedoms are severely diluted without a free press.

These freedoms were all defined in our Constitution, which was adopted in its present form in 1996.  How has South Africa fared since 1994?


During the past eleven years we have held three free and fair national elections and municipal elections.  We have an Independent Electoral Commission which is functioning independently and effectively. We have also seen the smooth and peaceful transition from our first president to our second president after the retirement of President Mandela.


So I think that we can report that we comply fully with this aspect of democracy.


The second question is whether our governmental system successfully enables people to participate freely at all levels of the processes by which they are governed.  Here, I think that we have some problems.


Our multiparty democracy – through no fault of the media – is not really working very well.  This is not due to the Constitution itself, but rather to the voting patterns of our electorate.  Most South Africans are still voting along ethnic lines and have yet to make the leap to non-racial, value driven politics.  The result is a dominant governing party without any credible electoral challenge.  Voters who vote for opposition parties feel increasingly disempowered and alienated.  Under these circumstances the media takes on a particularly important and relevant role.  Because the government – unfortunately – seldom responds to the opposition in parliament, it is particularly important that it should be held to account by the media.


Also through no fault of the media, Parliament is not nearly the dynamic forum that it should be.  Democracy, however, is not confined to the national Parliament. Rule by the people means that the people should have the right – and the ability – to participate at every level in the processes by which they are governed.  At the most basic – and perhaps the most important – level democracy depends on the ability of people to take decisions that most immediately affect their lives.  A central part of this process is the right of people to express their views, concerns and criticism – and a central function of the media in a democracy is to assist them to do so.


These freedoms – including the freedom of the press – must, of course, be enjoyed within a reasonable framework – a framework that ensures that the manner in which we exercise them does not prejudice the equal rights and freedoms of others.


As Samuel Johnson put it:  “The liberty of the press is a blessing when we are inclined to write against others and a calamity when we find ourselves overborne by the multitude of our assailants.”

It is also for this reason that the constitution rightly places some limitations on the freedom of the media.  It makes it clear that freedom of expression does not extend to

The critics of the media in South Africa – and there are quite a few – continuously point to the power of the media and to the fact that, by and large, it is owned by minority interests.

What are the facts?

We have 20 daily and 13 weekly newspapers, most in English.  Some 14.5-million South Africans buy the urban dailies, while community newspapers have a circulation of 5.5-million.

Most of these newspapers are controlled by four companies:  Independent Media, Johnnic Communications;  Nasionale Pers and the Caxton Group.

Independent Media is owned by Tony O’Reilly who first acquired a stake in local newspapers in 1995 when he took control of Argus Newspapers and renamed it Independent Newspapers.  Independent Newspapers is a wholly owned subsidiary of Independent News and Media (South Africa) Limited.  It publishes 14 daily and weekly newspapers in the country’s three major metropolitan areas.  The group enjoys aggregate weekly sales of 2.8-million copies, reaches about 63% of English newspaper readers, and receives about 48% of total advertising spend in the paid newspaper market.

Johnnic Communications is owned by a coalition of black business groups and trade unions, the National Empowerment Consortium.  It publishes the Sunday Times, South Africa’s biggest Sunday newspaper, as well as the Sowetan, Business Day, Sunday World, Daily Dispatch, the Herald, Weekend Post, Algoa Sun, Ilizwi and Our Times.

Nasionale Media, commonly referred to as Naspers, publishes five national dailies:  Daily Sun, Die Burger, Beeld, Volksblad and the Natal Witness.  Daily Sun is the largest daily newspaper in South Africa.  On Sundays, the company publishes Rapport, City Press and Sunday Sun, printed in four cities and distributed nationally.   Media24 Magazines controls more than 60% of the country’s magazine circulation, with 40 titles.

Finally the Caxton Group publishes the Citizen daily and has a stable of 88 knock and drops and regional papers as well as 15 magazines, including Farmer’s Weekly, the oldest magazine in South Africa.  The group is 38% owned by black-controlled Johnnic Communications.

It is accordingly clear that a substantial portion of the print media is owned by foreign interests and black South Africans.  The electronic media – in which the SABC has an overwhelming share – is also predominantly controlled by black South Africans – and regularly accused of being his master’s voice.

The perception that the South African media is dominated by white South Africans is accordingly simply incorrect.  Nevertheless the perception remains and has frequently given rise to criticism of the media.

As Benjemain Disraeli pointed out a hundred and forty years ago:  “the press is not only free it is powerful.  That power is ours.  It is the proudest that a man can enjoy.”

The perception of the ANC seems to be, however, that the power of the media is not entirely theirs – and this has led to criticism of the media’s role.

Perhaps the most blatant manifestation of media criticism came in 2000 when the Human Rights Commission held hearings into racism in the media.  According to the Commission it decided to hold the hearings because it was deeply concerned about the phenomenon of racism in our new democracy and because it wished to begin a dialogue with our media on racism including the role that the media was playing in either combating it or in promoting it.

It claimed that it held the hearings not because it wanted to make a scapegoat of the media but because it was acutely aware of the immense power that the media has to shape, influence and change public opinions, perceptions and consciousness.

The hearings led to an unseemly process where some members of the media prostrated themselves before the commission and confessed their guilt – while others refused to participate.  The hearings gave rise to a new charge: that the media could be guilty of ‘subliminal racism’ even if they clearly had no conscious intention of offending people from other races.

This was perhaps the least glorious moment for press freedom in the history of our new society.  Fortunately, it appears to have blown over – although there is lingering pressure for the media to behave in a politically correct manner.

At the end of the day, freedom and democracy presuppose the reasonable autonomy of the organisations composing civil society – including, in particular, the media. If the state unreasonably interferes with the right of any of these associations and institutions to conduct their lawful business as they see fit, it is an abrogation of their freedom; it is an interference in their democratic right to manage their private affairs.


The question arises with regard to the effect that black economic empowerment might have on the freedom of the media.   If the objective of BEE is to transfer ownership and control of companies to the black majority, what effect might this have on freedom of the press – particularly since the black majority overwhelmingly supports only one of the political groupings in the country?


In my view attempts to impose representivity on the media are entirely inconsistent with the principle of freedom of expression and with central tenets of democracy.  In multicultural societies, communities have a right to print or electronically to reflect their cultures, to express their views and to articulate their concerns.


Individuals, organisations and companies are also disturbingly hesitant to claim their rights or to question these trends because of their fear of being ‘politically incorrect’ or of alienating an increasingly powerful government.  In these circumstances the media has a special duty to speak out fearlessly and to articulate reality – what people really feel and say;  and trends which are prevalent.


In this regard a number of constitutional rights are under pressure – and the media has a special duty to report on this issue.


The right to freedom of association is clearly recognized in the Constitution provided that it is not linked to discrimination.  It is under extreme pressure from the increasingly pervasive – and unconstitutional – requirement for a simplistic form of representivity in every sphere of national life.


The right to education in the language of choice, is being pushed further and further into the background.  In the same manner, not enough is being done to give full recognition to Section 6 of the Constitution with regard to our 11 official national languages.


With regard to both education and language in general there is clear tendency to make English the de facto dominant language.


Section 9(2) of the Constitution which allows the State to implement affirmative action “in favour of people who have been disadvantaged by unfair discrimination” is also problematic.  It must be implemented in conjunction with Section 9, which clearly prohibits discrimination on any grounds.


Affirmative action, which means in essence, fair discrimination in favour of certain classes or groups of people, can and must accordingly be subjected to certain tests and in balance with the prohibition of discrimination.


Unfortunately this balance between non-discrimination and affirmative action is not given sufficient attention in practice.  In fact, the dominant impression among many people is that the prohibition against discrimination is frequently violated in the name of affirmative action; that the concept of the disadvantaged is wrongly being attached only to race and colour; and that South Africa is running a serious risk of once again becoming a country in which discrimination on the grounds of colour will once again become the norm.


One could also identify other matters about which there is reason for concern.  Fears regarding property rights come to mind.


It is, however, not my objective to draw up an indictment or a list of grievances.  Nor do I want to launch a political attack on the ANC.  In general, the ANC has shown itself to be dedicated to the constitution and to the principle of freedom of expression.  However, in democratic societies all governments need to be held to account – and in the absence of a strong parliamentary opposition the media and civil society have a specially important role to play.


Eleven years after 1994, our democracy continues to make promising progress:


However, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.  And we need a fearless and independent media to maintain that vigilance and to protect that liberty.