The South African Constitution champions freedom of expression in all respects, but attacks on journalists and activists recently have proven to be a threat to the very Constitution and our democracy as a whole. 

The Campaign for Free Expression published a review of freedom of expression in South Africa between 2018 and 2023 on the variables that are affecting the freedom of expression in South Africa. Author, Alan Finlay pointed out the following:

  • Journalists in South Africa are often intimidated, assaulted, receive death and rape threats, subjected to state surveillance, and court actions to silence them, while political leaders instigate attacks which increases risks both online and during assignments. 
  • Despite a Constitutional Court order to review interception legislation, ongoing surveillance of journalists is apparent and may be strengthened by a proposed intelligence law. 
  • The issue of targeted killings are hindering free expression, especially for those exposing corruption and environmental defenders. 
  • Gender-based violence and online threats are silencing women, while structural violence impacts LGBTQ+ individuals. 
  • Unrestrained police responses to protests result in injuries and deaths, and systemic corruption affects free expression in various sectors, including arts funding. The state may aim to increase censorship in the arts and online content through agencies like the Film and Publication Board.

Read the report here

The Campaign for Free Expression together with News24 hosted a webinar that speaks to the report and highlighted the many facets of freedom of expression or the lack thereof, that we need to pay attention to – not just as journalists – but as South African citizens. 

Karyn Maughn, legal journalist at News24 was recently in the spotlight after former president Jacob Zuma launched a private prosecution against her for “leaking” medical documents. Her ordeal with the former president showed how politicians still assume power over the media, which in itself is a threat to media freedom and journalists’ rights to do their work. 

Maughn said as the case progressed, she was subjected to online harassment, which had escalated to people threatening to commit sexual violations against her, while others had spread misinformation and false claims against her, in a bid to delegitimise her work, and profession as a journalist. 

Maughan pointed out that through the legal process, she received support and protection from News24, which ensured that even though she was getting threats, she could continue to do her work. While her case shows the value of organisational support for journalists under threat, it has also raised the issue of the lack of resources, especially for community journalists who do not get protection or do not have the funds to pursue investigations against people in power. 

Maughn’s point about the protection of journalists, especially women journalists, is that attacks are on the rise.  

“The levels of social media harassment and threats against journalists are increasing to such a degree that a lot of the younger journalists, I think, or journalists across all fields, particularly women may be more circumspect about reporting on powerful people mainly because of the kind of very public abuse, targeting and harassment that they may face,” she said. 

The central point was that in the current political climate, journalists need to be protected, but also aware of their rights and responsibilities especially ahead of elections. 

Right2Protest Project Coordinator  Omhle Ntshingila said journalists need to use their platforms to tell stories about marginalised communities without hijacking the narrative or making it about actions. 

Ntshingila works with activists and advocates for their right to protest, but ahead of elections, where protests become prevalent, she urged journalists to not simply report on the actions in the protests, but take time to understand why people are protesting. Furthermore, she  says it is often that people do not have the resources to raise their voices, even on social media because of data costs, so it’s imperative that the media works in a way that respects the narrative and creates an enabling environment where activists and community members can raise their voices and tell their stories. 

As, Ntshingila aptly explains, “Activists are excluded from conversations, especially public debates, and it’s as if, like these communities don’t have anything to say but if you were to be in a protest and just engage with people, you can really hear there’s so much more that communities have to say, there’s so much more that communities even have solutions to – only if they just had the resources to be listened to”.

In the same light, she said activists also need protection because they are often subjected to taunts from the police while protesting, and struggle to gain access to resources that will validify and strengthen their protests. 

Report author Alan Finlay said at its core, freedom of expression means that more stories need to be documented at the local level to get a much more nuanced view of what’s actually going on.

“The media’s job is to hold the space for debate, and this goes back to the freedom of expression issue of listening and debating, and I think that because it’s a very important election, they still need to make the space for debate and key issues, of which are issues of unemployment, the wealth gap and data costs, climate change, GBV. These are the issues that the media needs to debate ahead of elections,” said Finlay.