We may have plenty of challenges as a country, but what few of us fully appreciate is the pivotal role our media plays, and just how free and robust the South African media is when compared to other countries. At present we may have high levels of tension between major media houses and what they represent, but South Africa scores higher in terms of media freedom than any of our BRICS partners or even the US and UK – long considered beacons of media freedom.
Each year Reporters Without Borders publishes a media freedom index, which ranks 180 countries in terms of the level of freedom experienced by their journalists. The ranking is based on criteria such as the safety of journalists, their independence, and the level of self-censorship. Out of 180 countries in the 2019 report, South Africa ranks 31, with the Scandinavian countries at the top of the list in terms of media freedom. Towards the bottom of the list are countries like Turkey at 157, Egypt at 163, and Saudi Arabia at 172. But perhaps most surprisingly, is the fact that South Africa scores better than the US which is ranked at 48 and the UK which is ranked at 33. We also have a far more impressive score than the other BRICS countries, with Brazil sitting at 105, India at 140, and Russia at 149.
Our ranking actually dropped from 28 to 31, which some interpret as a result of hate speech by senior opposition figures directed at journalists, and other threats to the physical safety of journalists which has been on the increase. Threats against journalists made by Black Land First, for example, are believed to be a reaction to in-depth reporting on allegations of corruption and state capture. Female journalists in South Africa have borne the brunt of much of the harassment, particularly on social media and due to online trolling, which has become a battleground of conflicting narratives which has often turned abusive.
But despite these challenges, investigative reporting in the fourth estate is robust and fearless, and in many ways has set the public agenda. Without such penetrating investigations we would have never understood the full extent and breadth of state capture. We take for granted the ability to publish and say what we want about our leaders, as that is considered a given in a liberal democracy. But in other contexts that are also technically democracies, many journalists are disappeared and tortured for their reporting, and increasingly online bloggers are meeting the same fate.
Just consider the shocking comment made recently by Egpyt’s Minister of Immigration and Expatriates Nabila Makram who was addressing the Egyptian diaspora in Toronto and said, “Anyone who speaks out against our country from abroad – what happens to him? He’ll be sliced up.” The minister then runs a finger across her throat. The minister doubled down on the sentiments, saying: “Egyptians do not tolerate anyone who targets their country, nor any negative speech about Egypt.” This comment is coming from the country which is currently the Chair of the African Union and supposed to safeguard fundamental principles of good governance, such a freedom of expression and the media.
Any Minister expressing such a sentiment in the South African context would likely never recover politically. While we should celebrate our hard won democratic freedoms, we also need to work hard to safeguard the critical independence of the fourth estate which continues to keep the public and private sectors accountable. Being independent is not only the freedom of journalists to express ideas and opinions, but to be free from undue influence by political parties or factions.
Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.