It doesn’t look too grand for media freedom in South Africa. I recently surfed the net on the search for some facts on how well we’re doing in growing our child, the new democracy with all its newly won freedoms, into a healthy teenager (now that we’re 13).

What I found was a blow: according to the latest Reporters sans Frontieres Press Freedom Index (2006), South Africa was ranked only 44th out of 168 countries (with place 168 going to North Korea). In only four years — from 2002 to 2006 — we had slipped back 18 ranks!

While place 44 is still defined as a country having “genuine” press freedom, the situation in South Africa is “satisfactory”, but not “good”, says Reporters sans Frontieres.

To my even greater surprise, South Africa is ranked only sixth on the continent. We are behind Benin, Namibia, Mauritius, Ghana and Mali, in that order. Who would have thought? South Africa, the country hailed for its most liberal Constitution and as being the political/economic role model to the rest of Africa, does not flourish as much as we generally assume.

There seems to be a growing threat to media freedom. How could this have happened? Reporters sans Frontieres looked at a long list of issues when compiling the index: Are journalists threatened, murdered, imprisoned, attacked, kidnapped? Are media outlets censored, attacked, searched, closed down or fined? Is there free access to information? Can foreign journalists work freely in the country? Is there a state monopoly on or state control over media? And so forth.

Most of the issues above don’t seem to apply to the South African context, and the Reporters sans Frontieres site doesn’t give many clues to what exactly made us drop so heavily in the ranking. So I looked a little further.

There has actually been much talk about a decline in media freedom this year. The FXI has warned about “growing threats” to media freedom and an increasing trend towards media consolidation, while Reporters sans Frontieres criticised Jacob Zuma for his threat to sue the media, saying that the damages he demanded were exorbitant and aimed at intimidating the media (and putting them out of business) rather than seeking justice.

Reporters sans Frontieres, the Media Monitoring Project, the South African National Editors’ Forum and the FXI are all seriously concerned about the Film and Publications Amendment Bill, which would open the way to pre-publication censorship. Editors and journalists complain that there is no more presidential press corps and that access to information becomes more and more difficult, especially when it comes to public servants — although the right to information is a constitutional right.

The FXI says there is another disturbing trend: public servants who blow the whistle on corruption, misadministration and other abuses risk being fired and sued for huge amounts of money.

Not too long ago, the country was immersed in the SABC blacklisting debate and the resignation of John Perlman. There have been attempts to restrict media coverage of the Rugby World Cup and Australian Football League games this year. The M&G has been gagged several times, and journalists in KwaZulu-Natal have been publicly named and shamed by the ANC, while others have been pressured to disclose confidential sources.

The list could go on …

So, yes, there is a growing threat, and we better wake up before we slip even further down the press-freedom slide and find ourselves in the company of Saudia Arabia, China, Burma, Ethiopia, Cuba, Turkmenistan and Eritrea, whose governments do their utmost to prevent independent media practice.


  • Kristin Palitza is an award-winning, independent journalist, editor, media consultant and trainer. She is writing in-depth African features for the South African, German and UK print media and has worked within the newspaper, news service, online and magazine sectors in South Africa, Germany and the United States for the past 15 years. For more info on Kristin's work visit She also writes a literary blog on


Kristin Palitza

Kristin Palitza is an award-winning, independent journalist, editor, media consultant and trainer. She is writing in-depth African features for the South African, German and UK print media and has worked...

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