Zodidi Mhlana
Zodidi Mhlana

Media freedom — on the verge of extinction?

After 1994, many people thought South African media would be free at last, following many years of censorship under apartheid regime.

But that did not happen as we thought it would. In 1996, former president Nelson Mandela castigated black journalists for being critical of him and his government.

My question is: Were these journalists being critical of him or merely reporting on what was happening? In South Africa, the media do have freedom in the Constitution, but sometimes the concept is becoming comical.

The difference between South African media and other African media is that journalists are not killed, as is happening in the other countries. That is why many people think that South African media are liberated.

Although our government is not controlling the media as it is happening in countries like Zimbabwe, where private media are closed down, it is getting there with the way things are going in the country.

Here in South Africa we see newspapers like the Mail & Guardian being gagged regularly. Most of the people in this country have never seen or understood what was happening about the cartoons depicting Muhammad that were published all over the world, because newspapers were under a court interdict. Because of this, people had to rely on other media worldwide to see what was happening.

People often obtain court interdicts against newspapers. The NPA tried to prevent the M&G publishing the story about Jackie Selebi and his friend Agliotti, and the one about former SABC attorney Sihlali. Jacob Zuma regularly blames the media in his corruption and rape cases; he has made it clear that the media need to be regulated.

When Brett Kebble was murdered, Essop Pahad criticised many publications over what he called insensitive reporting, especially the Sunday Times. The publication used the following sentence in one of its editorials: “So today we say farewell to the Great Corrupter. May no more like you be born.”

The same man also accused South African media of bias in their reporting of Zimbabwe. He is the same man who has threatened to pull the government’s adverts in the Sunday Times, because of its reports on Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. The ANC is to consider setting up a media tribunal to discuss “the adequacy or otherwise of the prevailing self-regulatory dispensation within the media”, according to a policy document that came out of its conference in June.

As many people are calling for media regulation, it is now clear if the South African media were regulated, the Manto story would have never seen the light. The minute South African media are regulated by the government, it will be pure censorship. The Manto Tshabalala-Msimang story even had organisations such as Sanco calling on the NPA to investigate Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya, regarding his alleged role in the self-defence units in KwaZulu-Natal during the violence of the 1990s.

Last week it was Smuts Ngonyama reprimanding the use of newspaper cartoons that sketch politics.

The minute that South African media are regulated, the government will make sure that every story that reflects badly on its image will not be published. Then we will be no different from the Zimbabwean media.

If something is not done about the issue of media freedom in South Africa, we will not be different from Zimbabwe, The Gambia, Somalia and other countries where press freedom does not exist. Our press freedom will be only a far-off memory.

  • Nicole

    go Zodidi! nice to see some young people who engage with these issues thoughtfully…

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Musa

    If you think the media is no free in this country, you are really still in need of lots of training.Hopefull M&G will assist greatly in this regard.Shouldn’t even be responding.Good luck.

  • Warren Foster

    Nice work Zodidi, succinct compilation. Ignore any ad hominem, non-constructive responses, you’re onto something :)

  • http://Webmail Mischa & Mvulane

    The media in South Africa is free. It’s just that journalists can be manipulative, advantageous, intrusive and downright disrespectful. We all know the anti-governement sentiment which characterises ‘independent’ media houses. It’s true that the governement can be hypersensitive to constructive criticism and that they can be paranoid. Certain memebers of our media think they can bash people’s characters but are always the first to lament victimhood when they are held in question and asked to take responsibilitiy for ill-thought behaviour.
    We do applaud you however for bringing up the Mandela issue. Although he is a reputable statesman with integrity, he is not saint.

  • http://Webmail Mischa & Mvulane

    Oh yes.. we also think that comparing South Africa to Zim is a gross and absurd exaggeration.

  • Thami

    What an intellect she is! Believe me, she has all what it takes to be the best. This (story), with no hesitations, has been thorougly investigated and well presented. I’m pretty much proud of you Zodz, keep the flag very high up. Well done and all the best in future!

  • John Bond

    Go Zodidi Go girl…

    Media freedom, true media freedom has often only been got through a fight. This requires courageous journalists who look in all directions, at all our prominent people and all our institutions. Spare no one! Look in every dark corner!

    As we don’t yet have a viable opposition, it is only through the relentless press and their dogged journalists that some few people in public office have been held accountable. Well done! (don’t blame the ANC though for the lack of opposition)

    You journalists also give us endless entertainment. Where else but in Africa, could a head of a police force be accused of involvement in organized crime. How about a speaker of parliament who fraudulently awards contracts (Nigeria). Consider the case of a president refusing to hand over the notorious leader of the LRD to The Hague to face crimes against humanity (Uganda). What about a party, elected on a “fight corruption” ticket blocking some anticorruption legislation (Kenya). In each case, the robust reporting of the media shows that in Africa “…times they are a changing…” People are writing about this stuff and people are reading it.

  • Ntoshie Mzamo

    Zodidi sana, it’s a good story and u’ve got a point sisi.These issues need to be told. I like the fact that u’ve got practical examples that everyone else know concerning this issue. you go girl.

  • http://blogd.plugd.net esvl

    i totally agree, great article. I wish there was more people outspoken as you are.

  • http://none Dumisa Wondermen

    good work Zodidi, raise the power of the women who lose hope some of them. good work keep on it, I appreciated it so I hope even the others who read them will see this good work and appreciate it.

    keep on good work.

  • Zane

    What a sensible article by this young girl Ntombizondindi. I like her approach to media freedom in our country and her closing sentence. Mzansi needs a media that is free to investigate, publish any story that they think is in the public interest. Some want the ANC to be a big brother, and it is just a shame to those who think they can manipulate the masses in their thinking and expressing their views freely. Its a good thing to learn and realise the old fire of media ethics based investigation journalism is still alive in form of the like Zondindi. Keep it up

  • http://www.ibhubezi.co.za/ Arnold Goodway

    Great stuff Zodidi! So refreshing to read such an insightful article from such a young person. And just when I was starting to think that the only thing our young people know is how to log onto Facebook. Keep it up!

  • Xolisile Vilakazi

    My my my Zodidi and politics..guess some peeps just never change..

    I am impressed very thoughtful and eye opening. Yes South African media is sure going to the dogs if we let “THEM” regulate it ..

    Looking foward to more readings Zodidi

  • Miliswa Sitshwele

    Great Article Zodz…well researched and indepth im really impressed,South Africans really need to engage about such issues and not push them under the carpet. Its brave of you to raise such a topic.

  • Khumbulani

    See Ronald Suresh’s attack on the Media on Thought Leader.

  • Vuyo T

    A good, thoughtful piece of writing – bravo girl bravo. We need more ppl like u to state things or more precisely, the facts intrepidly. With u and alike (me perhaps?) SA media will succeed. Thanx for stating this issue so well and intellectually. Go Girl Go!

  • Doctor Cithi

    Clearly you have no idea on what you are talking about. You might know, or ought to know that the freedom of the media and the press is one of the fundamental value in our Constitution. On the other hand, we have the right to privacy and dignity. What is at issue here, is the balancing of these competing constitutional rights. There is this notion mostly perpertuted by the so called media expext that the right to freedom of the media override all other rights in the constitution. This notion is incorrect, and is not akin to our jurisprudence.

  • Lizile

    Wel said Zodi. Musa should stick to engineering.

  • Tumi

    Doctor Cithi has a point!!!! Even Zondi’s view point is presented in a totally biased manner which puts the rights of the media before those of the individuals being written about.

    Classical behaviour of the press is that when they report, the headlines are big, black (sometimes Red) and bold but when they retract it normally happens somewhere in the publication where it’s bound to be missed by many a reader!

    The quest for Zondi, as a young journo, should be to go down in history books as a respected, ethical, fair and objective scribe!

  • Mncedisi Skolo


    The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state .The Constitution expressly provides that the State must respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights in the Bill of Rights .Among those rights is the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media.

    Media access is indispensable to everyone and allows minority candidates with unorthodox views to be heard. The media have greater political relevance as it facilitates and contributes to the public debates.

    In our country practice has proven that the right to freedom of expression is enjoyed by every citizen. No one has ever been prosecuted by the government for articulating views/opinions that are contrary to that of government .Mervin Gumede; Andrew Festein; Mondli Makhanya and many more can attest to this point. Media can freely express its opinions and ideas without hindrance and fear.

    However, this right is being abused by media to damage the reputation of our elected leaders, which leads to a devastating effects upon their lives as it affects their status in practically all fields of life; social economic and political. Our Constitution also affords every citizen a right to privacy.

    This right is constantly infringed by some editors of certain newspapers. Thomas Paine (US political philosopher) argued that “certain rights were not just accidental to human character, but essential .Hence such rights were inalienable and to lose such rights either by giving away or by having them removed against one’s will ,was to lose an essential part of one’s humanity”. Our elected leaders are also afforded this right by virtue of simply being citizens.

    The freedom of expression/media should not violate others rights and lead to avoidable harm. Hence there is a need in South Africa to regulate the conduct of the media in order to curb these infringements. Nowhere in the world have the media escaped regulation. The media should desist in infringing the fundamental rights of our elected leaders and should instead focus in serving the interests of our people and country.

    Freedom of the media is essential ingredient of democracy and should therefore not be abused.

  • Doctor Cithi

    The will always be a tension between the right to freedom of expression ( S 16 of the constitution) and the right to privacy and dignity. The Courts has to do what we called; a balancing excises whenever there is a conflict between these two conflicting rights. Needless to say that every right in the constitution can be limited in terms of section 36 of the constitution (the limitation clause). What I have noted especially coming from the press is that when the Court rule that the right to freedom of the press and the media must give way to the right to privacy and/or dignity in a particular case, that is interpreted as an erosion or extinction of the media freedom, as Zodidi Mhlana put it. When one read some of the reporting around this issue, one can really be forgiven for concluding that the Courts (when balancing the conflicting rights, as mandated by the constitution to do) and the government, conspired to erode and/or extinct the freedom of the media. Nothing is further from the truth. The media cannot ask more than what the constitution afford them.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Musa

    Succinctly stated Mr Cithi. I see that you are still as sharp as you were in our masters class in media law.Its is always refreshing to hear from a clear thinker.
    Besides the fact that numerous court cases have evidenced this balancing act, those unfamilar with the constitution, the internal limitation on s16 and the general limitation on s36 find it hard to think it through.
    I suggest they begin with the Bill of Rights Handbook (at all good law libraries)for a cursory look at our rights jurisprudence and how the constitution works, not only for these rights but for all rights enshrined in the constitution.Just a suggestion.
    Lizile, Musa is a lawyer.Yep, right up there with petty thieves on judgement day!
    Khumbulani, a different view is not an attack on the media.Remember, whereas I might totally disagree with you, I guard your right to have your say with my life.Tolerence of othere views evidence your commitment to freedom of expression.
    A general swipe at other comments,as often said, far better off is a person that does not read at all then one that only reads newspapers…..
    Never in the history of this country has the media been so uncurtailed to go about their business, within the bounds of the law, without interference.

  • trevor

    Hi Zodidi
    I like what you wrote. Keep it up. I would like to add one aspect to your analysis and that is the material (class) interests behind the media. In most capitalist countries the mainstream media is mostly owned by the big capitalists whose economic interests finds expression in editorial policy. For example, you are not going to find any big newspaper or TV station promoting socialism or anything that might lead to that kind of thinking. In fact editors of bourgeois newspapers are conscious and sophisticated ideological agents of the bourgeoisie. They of course play a game of hide and seek and objectivity but will consistently support the law and order of capitalist exploitation, of profits before the needs of the people, which is what the new South Africa is essentially about, and the USA, UK, Zimbabwe, etc. The problem in South Africa is that the bourgeoisie have been able to hide behind the ANC government while all the time they are the true beneficiaries, rulers and usurpers of the new South Africa. It is not difficult to see how money ultimately controls the media in any capitalist country even if there is no Mugabe to terrorise journalists. I am not saying socialist countries have enjoyed a free press or anything like that. I am just saying in a capitalit economy advertising, distribution, payment for journalists, all these things are ultimately decided by the money bags, by the capitalists. Just look at the state of the USA media, it is a case of his master’s voice.

    All the best Didi, keep on writing

  • http://NA abduraghiem johnstone

    media freedom,is a struggle battle won, and now enshrined in the law.
    (Also) The media is commercial.Objectivity in media is a myth.In South Africa media is owned by monopolies(but for a neglible few)

    I would like to recommend, “pamphleteering the future” by Njabulo Ndebele. it might be a good read.If you enjoy him travel a bit further down the road-to the drum school-turn the bend, say hello to Sol T plaaje if by now you grooving with the natives, run up the hill and visit journalists like Geroge Manuel (Cape Times) and see how they got to the media trough.
    then have a relook at you your generation and the old newrich journalists. Do we some continuity here, love?
    And a bit of irreverence,travel to outer-space have a seance with Hunter S Thompson
    be critical, have fun.

  • Wandile Dumisa

    Dear Zodidi!

    Welldone and ever been done by young ones like you girl, You go girl! it is the nice article which influenced me to be the reader of the articles here. You know Girl? always in my spare time I visit this website to view new ones. cheers

  • mgeve

    Hola Sista!
    Read “Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times” by Robert W.McChesney; Read also “Technopoly” by Neil Postman; the last one is “Understanding the Media” by Marshal McLuhan: Some people like to display the Alma matter and education they have without contributing ‘jerk”. Why don’t you study the ANC’s media style from Exile to when they took power. Talking about Democracy, do we elect our leaders or have them anointed for us? Censorship in Mzantsi is a given. The internet is regulated in our country. Imagine the amount people have to pay a month, and the limitations put on usage that based on the amount of usage by the user. Tata seems to have lost touch with todays news print and technology. Obvious, if they wish to curtail the media, this means they have a lot to hide. This means we need to interrogate their motives for clamping on the Media. Cartoonist are very important as media observers and commentators. You need to work on developing media that is accessible to ordinary people in the country. Read-up on the History and ownership of the media in South africa. Someone suggested Sol Plaatjie’s works, read them too. Encourage you the go internet Cafes to acclimatize with the computer and the Web. Write stories on Internet Cafes in the Townships and how these are used by the regular folks. You need to understand more about Media Convergence in the Age of Technology and
    technological splurge