Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Freedom of the media is a difficult concept to pin down. In its extreme form, the suppression of media freedom is blindingly obvious and SA’s own history provides a few cases in point.

Famously, on "black Wednesday" in 1977, three newspapers were banned. In the 1980s, harassment of the press was almost without respite and included the banning of entire publications — to prevent what was described as "fanning unrest" during the states of emergency — and fierce control over the airwaves.

Ultimately, when the new Constitution was drawn up, the outrage against the suppression of a free press was still fresh, so the idea warranted its own special clause and became firmly embedded in the Constitution.

Since then, media freedom has been something of an article of faith for most political parties of almost every persuasion. To even the most casual observer, the vibrancy of the media is obvious and the variety of news sources has grown enormously since apartheid ended. But somewhere over the past few years, something has changed.

The changes have not been huge, but the trend is noticeable, even if it has vacillated. The biggest threat to press freedom, in fact, is contained in one of apartheid’s most formidable tools, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

The SABC has for years been contested terrain, but over the past few years, the "public broadcaster" suddenly became the "government broadcaster" once again. Brave action by key figures at the broadcaster have rolled back that trend somewhat. Yet the South African airwaves remain dominated by the structure that apartheid built to perform precisely that function. The total "share of voice" of the SABC remains huge, which is precisely why it has become such an important political football.

In other areas, there have been gains and losses. The question is not only what you can publish, but what publications do actually publish. Measures of media freedom often distinguish between the legal environment, the political environment and the economic environment.

In SA, the legal environment remains enormously supportive of a free media, partly because the constitutional provisions are so bold and clear.

Some of the worst features of the old era have suddenly returned

The economic environment is more complicated. Newspapers are under financial pressure around the world and newsrooms around the country have shrunk. New digital media have quickly filled the gap and it would be hard to sustain the claim that South Africans are less informed now than they were a decade ago.

SA has a Promotion of Access to Information Act to promote responsiveness, transparency and accountability in the government and the private sector. Yet in practice only a few cases of access to information applications have resulted in full disclosure.

It is on the political front that SA has really taken a dive. In a context in which the ANC had overwhelming political support, it could afford to present itself as a great champion of a free press, particularly since the state broadcaster was overwhelmingly on board.

However, the ANC itself has become more fractious, its message more contested and its challenges more acute as the economy has declined. The result is that some of the worst features of the old era have suddenly returned. Journalists are being threatened and intimidated. Death threats, attempts at physical harm and vandalism are now much more frequent.

The death of radio producer Suna Venter, one of the "SABC 8", has dramatically raised questions that South Africans hoped they would never have to confront again: is media freedom once again under threat? Sadly, it is.

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