Johannesburg, South Africa – The gritty suburb of Mayfair in Johannesburg is home to a large refugee and immigrant community. It’s April 2015 and the South African Police Services, accompanied by members of the South African National Defence Force, the country’s armed forces, are on the streets in large numbers. Visibly armed, they are searching out undocumented migrants in the area.
While a policeman frisks a foreigner outside a small corner store, a journalist trains her camera on the unfolding scene. The policeman becomes testy. He asks the journalist for her accreditation.
By law, the police cannot stop journalists from taking photographs of their operations, whether or not they have documents proving they are journalists. But this isn’t always the reality on the ground, and while the police have vowed to cooperate with journalists, media freedom activists warn that a culture of hostility towards journalists is taking root in South Africa.
Al Jazeera speaks to Micah Reddy, a journalist and national co-ordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign in Johannesburg, about the state of press freedom in South Africa.
“In theory South Africa certainly does enjoy press freedom,” he says. “The country has a very progressive constitution that protects and promotes the freedom of the press. In practice, as well, we have a very high degree of media freedom, especially when compared with other countries in Southern Africa.”
The legal mechanisms protecting press freedom, as well as a strong culture of appreciation for media freedom, do not, however, preclude incidents of harassment, surveillance and violence against journalists.
There was the very high-profile case of the investigative reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika, who works for Johannesburg’s Sunday Times. He was arrested in 2010, and continued to be monitored, by the state’s own admission, more than a year later.
Mzilikazi’s case made headlines because he was investigating something that made powerful figures rather uncomfortable. But it was not a unique case.
On a more local level, the incidence of harassment and even physical violence towards journalists is very high. For instance, in September 2013, Karabo FM, a community radio station based in Sasolburg, an industrial town south of Johannesburg, was burned down. Very little noise was made about this arson attack because this is a small community radio station and not a national newspaper like the Sunday Times.
Certainly the surveillance of journalists is known to be widespread, and it is up to journalists to push back against further surveillance from the state
Mike Tshele, a community media journalist, was killed by a police officer last year. He was the first journalist killed while doing his job since apartheid ended. He was killed at a service delivery protest and there is a very good chance that he was targeted for being a journalist, for doing his job. His death, however, did not receive the media attention it deserved.
The mainstream media in South Africa can be very self-interested and often ignores the plight of community media. If you are a community media worker and you are covering local struggles, such as service delivery protests, which receive very little mainstream media coverage, and where the police are known to behave with impunity, your job is very dangerous.
The arson attack against Karabo FM was politically motivated, and it stemmed from factional battles for power within the locality. So community media becomes ensnared in these battles, making their jobs yet more dangerous. It is, however, difficult to define where the greatest threat to journalists comes from.
Journalists under surveillance
It’s not one coherent conspiracy – sometimes it’s individuals acting in their own capacity, other times it is state actors in collusion with big business. Certainly the surveillance of journalists is known to be widespread, and it is up to journalists to push back against further surveillance from the state.
There is draconian legislation in the pipeline that does indeed pose a credible threat to press freedom in South Africa. The notorious Secrecy Bill, which we believe poses a deep threat to the free flow of information in South Africa, is still on President Jacob Zuma’s desk, awaiting his signature to be passed into law.
Criminal defamation is also something that journalists need to be worried about. It is reactionary to criminalise defamation and it’s been used around Southern Africa as a means of silencing journalists and dissenters. What is worrying is that criminal defamation against journalists is something that our courts have upheld.
It’s not just the threat of going to prison, or having a criminal record that is at stake here. It is that the threat of a trial is itself quite detrimental to the work of a journalist. It can be devastating financially and psychologically for a reporter.
Many powerful figures in South Africa continue to call for a move away from the current system of self-regulation in the media. These calls for regulation of the media through a state agency are a very serious threat to press freedom.
Most of these threats to regulate the media are coming from, to put it quite bluntly, the ruling party and government. Usually, when these calls for media regulation are made, it’s coupled with statements such as “The press needs to be more patriotic” or, as the head of the public broadcaster put it, “There needs to be more sunshine journalism.”
These are crude smears against journalists, and they are often bizarre. If this is indeed realised, it would have a terribly chilling effect on the media in South Africa.