South Africa drops in press freedom ranking

“This year’s index sees many changes in the rankings, changes that reflect a year that was incredibly rich in developments, especially in the Arab world,” Reporters Without Borders said yesterday as it released its 10th annual press freedom index.

According to the report, South Africa has dropped four places, from 38 to 42, with the decline attributed to the government’s desire to control news and information.

“Many media paid dearly for their coverage of democratic aspirations or opposition movements. Control of news and information continued to tempt governments and to be a question of survival for totalitarian and repressive regimes. The past year also highlighted the leading role played by netizens in producing and disseminating news,” read the report.

“Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011. Never has freedom of information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much. Never have acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists seemed so numerous. The equation is simple: the absence or suppression of civil liberties leads necessarily to the suppression of media freedom. Dictatorships fear and ban information, especially when it may undermine them,” the report states.

Mmusi Maimane, DA National Spokesperson, said the report was spot-on in this regard.

“The ANC-led government has exhibited an unfettered desire to control the manner in which news is reported in South Africa in the last year,” he said.

“The government has made several attempts through policy proposals to ensure it controls the manner in which information is disseminated; it has introduced the Protection of State Information Bill; and officials and ANC leaders have made public utterances designed to undermine press freedom in South Africa,” he said.

Maimane said that while the government had consistently declared itself to be a crusader for the free press, incidents in the last year pointed to the contrary:

  • The majority of ANC MPs have taken a pro-Protection of State Information Bill stance.
  • ANC Regional Chairperson Nceba Faku called on supporters celebrating the ANC’s slender local government election victory in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality to burn down the offices of the local daily, The Herald.
  • Jimmy Manyi threatened to withdraw funding to publications that do not toe the government line.
  • Gwede Mantashe compiled a witch-hunt list of newspapers and individual journalists perceived to be anti-ANC.
  • Blade Nzimande suggested that restrictions should be imposed on media ownership.
  • ANC MP and now Deputy Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni called for the Media Tribunal to be placed firmly back on the agenda.
  • The ANC-aligned SA National Civics Organisation (Sanco) drew up a list of  journalists it called “traitors” because of their criticism of Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza.

“Press Freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy. Without press freedom there cannot be a credible barometer of government’s performance. It is the most vulnerable that suffer as a result,” said Maimane.

According to the report, the same  trio of countries, Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea, again occupied the last three places in the index, followed by Syria, Iran and China. Other countries such as Uganda and Belarus have also become much more repressive, the report said.

At the top of the list were Finland, Norway and Netherlands, which were lauded for their respect of basic freedoms.

“This serves as a reminder that media independence can only be maintained in strong democracies and that democracy needs media freedom. It is worth noting the entry of Cape Verde and Namibia into the top twenty, two African countries where no attempts to obstruct the media were reported in 2011,” said the report.