SA media freedom has slipped rank from 24 to 39. What has happened?

Written by Steuart Pennington

SA’s media freedom is ranked 39th out of 171 countries, just behind the UK (34th) and ahead of the USA (49th). Ten years ago we ranked 24th

What’s happened?

Every year Reporters without Borders rank approximately 170 countries on Media Freedom. They group countries into five bands of freedom. They measure media independence, legislative framework, pluralism, and the way journalists are treated. These five categories of freedom are:

  • Good situation (21 countries)
  • Satisfactory situation (30 countries)
  • Noticeable problems (61 countries)
  • Difficult situation (45 countries)
  • Very serious situation (19 countries)

SA ranks in the middle of the 30 countries described as being in a ‘Satisfactory situation’.



The DA and the Cape Times

So what’s going on with the DA and the Cape Times?

How is the South African Editors Forum (SANEF) dealing with this?

Is it true that, as the DA claims, “South African Journalism is in an ‘Unprecedented Crisis’?

The DA asks:

  • Do some of our editors and journalists believe they are above criticism and that anyone who challenges factual inaccuracy, misleading headlines, or even outright inventions and plagiarism, is attacking media freedom?
  • Do our readers have the right to complain about shoddy reporting and breaches of the press code (as we at frequently do) and if they wish – stop subscribing?
  • Do we have to tolerate the kind of attitude displayed by the libertine editor of the Cape Times, Aneez Salie when he accused a correspondent who queried a Cape Times photographer being ‘at the ready’ when students threw poo at the Campus Statue of Rhodes “We’ll just assume you are part of a racist campaign against the Cape Times – and we will deal with you.”?

In the recent months the decision by the DA to let its subscriptions to the Cape Times lapse has come under fire from the ANC, the South African Editor’s Forum (SANEF) and the Cape Times itself via the Independent Newspaper Group.

The DA (and I carry no brief for them) has often written of the phenomenon of “state capture,” the phenomenon whereby the Zuma faction of the ANC uses cadre deployment to capture institutions of state that should be independent, and abuses them to extend their control.

The DA now claims a parallel and equally sinister phenomenon, “media capture”. “It is pure sophistry for many titles and journalists to claim the role of independent, investigators ‘speaking truth to power’. While some still are, far too many have become mere extensions of the party that has captured them, using public resources to extend their power.”

As Premier Zille writes “That is the threat to media freedom that South Africa has to face. And we had better have the guts to do so, otherwise it will be one of the factors that contribute to the destruction of our democracy.”

nick-davies-propagandaIs South African Journalism in an ‘unprecedented crisis?’


In his book “Flat Earth News”, acclaimed British journalist Nick Davies examines the state of journalism in today’s world. He deals extensively with the issues of news and truth. What he has to say is pertinent. In respect of “news” he argues, “Modern journalism is the rapid repackaging of largely unchecked, second-hand material, much of it designed to serve the commercial and political interests of those who provide it… The mass media are constantly vulnerable to being infected with falsehood, distortion and propaganda”.

In respect of “truth” he says, “Journalism without checking is like the human body without an immune system. If the primary purpose of journalism is to tell the truth, then it follows that the primary function of journalism must be to check and to reject whatever is not true. But something has changed, and that essential immune system has started to collapse. In a strange, alarming and generally unnoticed development, journalists are pumping out stories without checking them, stories which then circle the planet. As David Broder, an American political reporter said in 1979, “the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours – distorted”. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel in “The Elements of Journalism” write, “In the new century, the likelihood of untruth has become so much more prevalent”.

Nick Davies concludes, “we see a kind of madness, a kind of psychotic society which has started to lose contact with reality and believe its own delusions. Ignorance is at the root of media failure. Most of the time most journalists do not know what they are talking about. Their stories may be right, or they may be wrong: they don’t know because they work in structures which positively prevent them from discovering the truth. The ethic of honesty has been overwhelmed by the mass production of “ignorance”.”

Chilling words indeed.

Does this happen in South Africa? Well, sadly, I came across many examples of this “madness”.

Our mission for 13 years at has been to promote a balanced narrative ‘celebrate the good and confront the bad’ has been our mantra.

Is the independence of our media now at stake?

Hardly a week goes by in which either a talk show host or a journalist talks of some South African attribute being “the worst in the world”. The debate is most often over the facts, be it corruption, murder rates, divorce rates, HIV infection, child malnutrition, maths and science education and the like.

But we now have a more insidious development, if you choose to disagree on matters of fact “you mustn’t” as the Cape Times argued “think that an accident of birth is a passport to the front of the queue at the Cape Times.”

It is therefore much to my surprise the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), whose Vision statement includes: “To promote the quality and ethics of journalism” and “the press shall be obligated to report the news truthfully, accurately and fairly…in context and in a balanced manner without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts” has been vocal, and critical of the decision by the Western Cape government to allow Cape Times subscriptions to lapse, a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with SANEF’s mandate.

Indeed, given that SANEF aims to promote the quality and ethics of journalism, it should be leading the charge against unethical and inaccurate journalism. But a look at its website and twitter timeline shows it has become a mutual admiration society for journalists, and protects them whatever they do.

Why is SANEF so silent on almost every issue relevant to “quality and ethics” in journalism, and why is it silent on this insidious creep of propaganda into our journalism? Do we have a poltroon in the making?

The Chairman of the National Press Club, said in a recent address to Tukkies journalism students, “The National Press Club will continue to fight for media freedom and for free speech. We will continue to be fair – we will continue to praise – we will continue to condemn.”

“We in the media have a job to inform, to educate and to entertain. We have to reflect government business and I believe the media can do a bit more. However we should not become government puppets just for the sake of it. We must highlight the good and the bad. It is important for us to keep a balance.”

What then is happening at the Independent Group?

do-with-lessPropaganda, bad news and good news


And what is happening in many of our newsrooms?

Is our national narrative increasingly becoming propagandist, while remaining uninformed, gloomy and overwhelmingly pessimistic.

Does the reading and listening public know of the truth, both good and bad? Or are we being increasingly caught in the cross-fire of party political agendas and a partisan media.

I wrote a while back that The Editorial Line has indeed given way to The Bottom Line, it seems now that The Propaganda Line is raising its ugly head.

If our news media are going to live up to “playing a role in social-cohesion, creating a better South Africa and joining hands to create a better nation”, they need to reflect on what constitutes independence of ‘thought’, ‘truth’, and ‘news’ and they need to constantly check that their stories, are in fact, accurate.

Failing which our Global Rankings will slip further.

 By Steuart Pennington of