South Africa guarantees press freedom and has a well-established culture of investigative journalism. In recent years, journalists have often been subjected to verbal attacks from political leaders and activists.
The South African media landscape is sturdy, diverse and dynamic. Media outlets do not hesitate to reveal scandals involving powerful figures. Many news websites, such as the very popular News 24, have added paywalls, resulting in increasingly limited access to online news articles for a segment of the population that cannot afford to pay. The Sunday Times continues to be the best-selling newspaper. The Daily Maverick, an online newspaper whose content is still free of charge, is also very popular.
Political tension sometimes gives rise to disinformation or smear campaigns against media outlets, especially on social media. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has at times resorted to such campaigns, but those waged by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), one of the opposition parties, are by far the most virulent. Its leaders and supporters do not hesitate to incite violence and accuse certain journalists of racism.
The 1996 constitution protects press freedom, but apartheid-era and anti-terrorism laws are used to limit reporting on institutions deemed to be in the “national interest.” A new law provides for penalties of up to six months in prison for spreading false news about the Covid-19 pandemic.
Very high operating costs hold back the development of small, independent media outlets, which have been decimated by the worst economic downturn in decades resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ramaphosa presidency is often accused of using the government’s considerable discretionary powers to favour certain media outlets through advertising expenditure.
The public appreciates the media’s reporting, perhaps partly in recognition of the role journalists played in drawing attention to apartheid-era abuses, but also because of the high level of interest in politics, crime, justice and societal issues. Some subjects are hard to cover, and journalists are often obstructed when covering protests.
Journalists are rarely arrested in South Africa but the police sometimes fail to protect them when they are exposed to violence. The resurgence of verbal and physical attacks against journalists by political activists is worrisome. Surveillance of investigative journalists by the state security agency is also a source of concern. In 2021, the Constitutional Court ordered changes to the law on intercepting communications in order to safeguard the confidentiality of journalists’ phone conversations and sources.