South Africa’s media prides itself on being able to express its opinions freely, and, backed up by the country’s constitution, journalists can seek accountability from government without fear or favour.
“I think covering the elections in South Africa we don’t face the kind of challenges that for example Zimbabwe faces during their elections. We do not really face the dangers from members of the public being aggressive towards us, restrictive factions, government control, police or other. We don’t experience restrictions when it comes to our personal safety. I think there are some restrictions on covering processes, but that is the norm everywhere else in the world. There aren’t any barriers to report on elections in South Africa whether visually or by text,” explained Thomas Holder, a senior multimedia investigative journalist at Eye Witness News, on how the media in South Africa is not muzzled during the election period.
South Africa has a constitutional framework that protects press freedom and other laws which promote editorial independence, media diversity, independent regulation and access to information. Since attaining democracy in 1994, South Africa values the role of the media in the 25-year-old democracy. This is why journalists can operate freely during the elections without being restricted by authorities or political parties.
The media does not only play a crucial role in the coverage of elections, but also in its aftermath, when the imaginary fourth pillar of the state brings politicians to account. “The media is doing the best it can to hold people in power to account on a day to day basis. Journalists hold government and service providers to account for their promises and mandate and how they should be operating in South Africa.”
“The press regularly intervenes in situations of injustice by interviewing politicians, members of government, service providers, and the enforcers of law on how they have behaved and if they are fulfilling their promises made to the people. Of course, when you have politicians campaign whether at grassroots or parliament level, we have access to those persons and their promises,” comments the journalist on the coverage of the media over electoral promises.
The media plays a vital role in ensuring that the promises made during campaigning are kept as well, as throughout the years when people hold positions and fail to serve their mandates. The influence of the press on voter’s decision is particularly strong in the run up to elections, said Holder.
It is not all smooth sailing, and there are problems, such as politicians having disputes with certain news outlets, which are dubbed enemies of the respective party. An example is the harassment of journalist Karima Brown, who was accused by opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters, of being an African National Congress mole. The party president Julius Malema then shared Brown’s number on social media, which led to her receiving death threats. Brown has taken the party to court, accusing it of breaching the electoral code. The High Court is yet to pass judgment on the case.
“The reality of any protection contained in the legislative framework is that it can only be tested through a legal challenge. That is when a protection on paper is translated by a court. Brown was subjected to particularly violent racial and sexist abuse online and offline. She received rape and death threats. The sentencing even now should be punitive enough to deter EEF leader Julius Malema and his supporters from ever attacking any journalist, male or female,” said Reyhana Masters, who is a journalist who focuses on freedom of expression, and is an access to information activist in the region.
Having a media plurality, and a genuine public broadcaster which is impartial, journalists have the chance to conduct their work professionally. However, are South African journalists able to make a living from doing this work?
"Most of my work I do is for free, just to get my work published. It’s still a white industry, many of us black photojournalists don’t make money during this period," laments Mujahid Safodein, an acclaimed South African photojournalist, on the difficulty black journalists have in getting work during elections. Even journalism is an unequal industry, where white foreign correspondents are esteemed higher than black journalists.
The country of South Africa is regarded as a hopeful beacon of democracy, partly because of the freedom of the media from state control, and the press’s coverage of issues affecting society. In comparison with some other countries on the continent, South Africa has its constitutionally enshrined safeguards for press independence, to protect it from direct political interference, which has mostly worked successfully to maintain its press freedoms.