South African journalists, activists and the public are facing increasing challenges to freedom of expression, making them targets of contract killings, death threats and online abuse.
And the government appears to be tightening the noose on media and online freedom by drafting new legislation such as the Intelligence Bill and amendments to the Film and Publications Act, which threaten to stifle the work of journalists and activists.
This is the warning sounded by a new report, titled The Landscape is Darkening: A Review of Freedom of Expression in South Africa (2018-2023), released by nonprofit organisation Campaign for Free Expression.
The report paints a bleak picture of the demise of freedom of expression in South Africa despite it being enshrined as a right in the Constitution.
The 27-page review provides an overview of how the landscape for free expression has darkened, citing cases where activists and whistleblowers have been killed, how politicians and the public have physically attacked journalists, and how the state is passing laws to clamp down on freedom of expression.
According to the report, the review is an attempt to conduct a reality check on why there is a constant, desperate need to defend citizens and journalists’ rights to freedom of expression.
“We find that the answers lie in the deep and growing gap between policy and reality, between the 1994 promise of freedom and the realities of inequality and poverty, between government commitments to protect free speech and the scrappy laws being discussed in Parliament that would undermine free expression,” the report noted.
“In a society with such high levels of crime and corruption, artists and writers are not going to remain unscathed. In a society with a frighteningly high level of political assassination and the killing of whistle-blowers, journalists are not going to breathe easily.”
Among the report’s key observations were that journalists and those who speak out face frequent attempts to silence them, including intimidation and assault, death and rape threats, state surveillance and court action.
During the period under review, an environmental activist was assassinated, people of different sexual orientation were murdered, journalists were hit with rubber bullets and a member of the public broke a journalist’s jaw with a brick.
“The state can be ambivalent in its support for freedom of expression; in protests, both bystanders and journalists are under threat from police action; municipalities try to restrict petitions to protest; the state surveilles journalists and, according to some media houses, refuses to comment on stories. The president is also said to have ignored his commitment to the media to facilitate communication between journalists and the government,” the report warned.
“Political leaders have instigated attacks on journalists by party supporters. These increase the risks journalists face online and while out on assignment. Despite the constitutional court ordering the review of interception legislation, the surveillance of journalists appears to be ongoing and is likely to be strengthened by a newly proposed intelligence law.”
Female reporters appear to be more vulnerable to the threat of violence than their male counterparts. In a recent incident, a journalist was blocked from reporting by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) supporters at a taxi rank.
The supporters assaulted her and pushed her to the ground and, according to a South African National Editors Forum statement, “[t]he EFF members, as well as the JMPD [Johannesburg metro police] officials walked over her. No one defended or assisted her.”
Online attacks on women journalists are also often gendered, with the specifics of the threats mostly unreported and accepted as part of the job. Examples highlighted in thre report included the account by Ferial Haffajee and journalist Karima Brown in 2019 of receiving anonymous telephone calls and messages on Twitter and WhatsApp from EFF supporters, which included threats of rape, violence and death.
“In 2018 EFF supporters attacked women journalists on social media, calling them
‘whores’, ‘witches’, ‘bitches’ and ‘cunts’, as well as racists and Nazis. There were also calls for the journalists to be raped, killed and for their home addresses to be published online,” the report found.
“In March 2021 concerns were raised about the reported surveillance of News24 investigative journalist Jeff Wicks by the police’s Crime Intelligence division, as well as about a burglary at the home of Daily Maverick journalist Marianne Thamm, when work laptops were stolen.
“Thamm had been targeted in a Crime Intelligence investigation into leaked documents. These incidents took place just a month after the constitutional court declared the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act (Rica) unconstitutional.”
Targeted killings were found to be another “significant inhibitor” of free expression for those who wish to expose corruption, environmental and land defenders and journalists.
The report noted that, in general, 276 targeted killings were reported in the news in 2020 and 2021, the highest among African countries surveyed — higher even than Brazil and India.
“Structural violence also silences LGBTQ+ people. In one eight-month period at least two LGBTQ+ people were murdered in South Africa each month.”
The report noted that the police appear to be unrestrained in their response to protest action. In one incident their over-reaction resulted in the death of a bystander. On several occasions, journalists were seriously injured.
And the state appears only to be bracing to further dim the darkening horizon, while the private sector is also, through threats of litigation and other measures, likely to weaken freedom of expression.
“It is likely that the state, using the Film and Publication Board, will attempt to play a greater role in censoring the arts and online content in the future. The private sector is also likely to play an increasingly powerful role in censoring online content,” the report warned.