Dear Fellow South African,
A free press is among the most significant dividends of our democracy, yet it is one that we perhaps take the most for granted.
On Wednesday, we will observe Media Freedom Day in South Africa, marking the events of 19 October 1977 and what became known as Black Wednesday.
This was when the apartheid regime banned The World, Weekend World and The Voice newspapers, arrested the legendary The World editor Percy Qoboza and scores of activists, and outlawed several Black Consciousness organisations.
In South Africa barely 45 years ago, the very practice of journalism was seen as a threat to the stability of the state.
In reflecting on how things have changed since the advent of democracy the real-time barometer on global press freedom published by Reporters without Borders (RSF) is instructive.
At the bottom of each country report is an infographic detailing abuses of journalists.
One considers for example that this year alone 45 journalists and 4 media workers have been killed in various parts of the globe in circumstances relating to their work. Also, this year, 207 journalists and 7 media workers have been imprisoned.
In South Africa, no journalists were killed in 2022 in circumstances relating to their journalistic activity and none were imprisoned. This was also the case last year, the year before and in the years preceding them.
This is an indicator of the robust health of not just our media but of democracy itself.
That journalists are free to ply their trade without fear of retribution is something we can be extremely proud of. In South Africa, media can publish and broadcast freely, and the media regulates itself through various mechanisms such as the Press Code.
Tabloid style journalism exists alongside serious reportage. Serious, informed critique exists alongside gossip-mongering and broadsides against public personalities, celebrities and politicians.
As the head of state, I am the subject of different media products on a near daily basis. That the President should be consistently in the media’s crosshairs is to be expected and I will continue to take it in my stride.
Media freedom is a fruit of democracy and one we must all jealously safeguard and strive to uphold.
This is particularly the case when there are attempts to intimidate, threaten or silence journalists using online and other platforms. This was particularly witnessed during the state capture era.
What was most disturbing were the attacks directed at female political journalists on social media platforms, using misogynistic terminology and even accompanied by threats of sexual violence.
Given this regrettable period in our not-too-distant past, it is of concern that we are seeing a resurgence of online and other forms of abuse directed against journalists in our national life.
The ill-treatment of journalists that is happening in so many parts of the world is something that should not be allowed to happen in South Africa. The media plays an unparalleled role in ensuring there is accountability in our democratic order, so we must all stand firm against any attempts to intimidate or silence journalists.
Despite our gains around press freedom, this year South Africa’s ranking in the RSF World Press Freedom Index dropped three notches since 2021.
There are multiple facets to media freedom. Journalists’ safety is just one indicator; the others are political and economic context, legal framework and sociocultural context. The index cites accessing quality journalism via paywalls as an economic barrier for citizens, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on funding for small and independent media to operate and online smear campaigns by political parties directed at journalists.
Another factor that is heavily impacting the state of journalism not just in South Africa but around the world is the threat posed by disinformation.
The steady encroachment of disinformation being disseminated online and even by established media outlets is worrying. Its potential to cause harm extends way beyond the confines of an individual consumer of news.
We witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of this during the 2021 July unrest in several parts of the country, when false information disguised as reportage inflamed tensions between communities and was used to mobilise people to commit criminal acts and even to incite violence.
In the disinformation age, we need more media, not less.
The only counter to the proliferation of disinformation is the growth and expansion of credible news media outlets. The only counter to bad journalism rife with political agendas and ‘purging crusades’ is credible, well-trained journalists whose only interest is educating and informing the public.
Both government and the private sector are called upon to play their part in supporting the free press by ensuring its sustainability through advertising, content partnerships and other models.
We are fortunate indeed that we have come a long way since Black Wednesday.
As we commemorate Media Freedom Day, we salute our nation’s hardworking journalists, editors and other media workers who continue to fulfil their important role in the service of democracy.
With best regards,