The latest edition of Freedom House's annual "Freedom of the Press Report" paints a dire picture of press freedom in South Africa.
A lack of access to information was one of the main concerns raised by the report in relation to the state of press freedom in South Africa. While journalists exercise a number of rights, often in the public interest, including the right of freedom of expression, access to information is a key underlying right that enables the exercise of all these other rights, and it is worrying not only for the press but for the wider society if this enabling right is found to be so much under threat.
Despite being among the stronger performers in Southern Africa, South Africa is ranked only 37th overall for press freedom and has fallen four places from the 33rd position it held last year. The report attributes this drop in rank mainly to:
1. The use of the apartheid-era legislation the National Key Points Act (Act 102 of 1980) to foil any critical reporting on President Jacob Zuma’s controversial Nkandla homestead;
2. The passing through parliament of the Protection of State Information Bill;
3. Attempts to censor freedom of expression including the Film and Publications Board’s proposal to censor blogs, personal websites and Facebook pages; and
4. The proposed resuscitation of the media appeals tribunal especially amid comments from government officials that the media’s coverage of the recent xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, and particularly coverage of the murder of Immanuel Sithole, portrays the country in a bad light.
The use of the National Key Points Act to suppress the legitimate exercise of people’s rights was experienced first-hand by Right2Know (R2K) members and led to SAHA putting in a PAIA request on behalf of R2K for a list of National Key Points; that list was released to SAHA and R2K only after the court ordered that the denial of access under PAIA was unlawful and unconstitutional.
The passing of the controversial Protection of State Information Bill through parliament can be seen as an effort to stymie access to information. Should it become an Act this Bill will give wide powers to government officials to classify information as confidential and, more worryingly, carries very serious penalties for the disclosure and possession of classified information, with only a limited public interest defense.
The Film and Publications Board's recent proposal to censor blogs, personal websites and Facebook pages is also a sign of the state’s encroachment on the public’s right to freely received and exchange information.
This report is a sobering reminder of how important the right of access to information is to press freedom and how easily press freedom can be curtailed when that right is limited.
Download FULL Report from Freedom House website
Read section of SOUTH AFRICA