Press freedom in South Africa

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks South Africa at 38 in its 2010 Press Freedom Index. This puts the country ahead of France (44), Italy (49), and the US (99), and well within the top 50 countries said to have “genuine press freedom”.

RSF’s ninth annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index – covering the period from 1 September 2009 to 1 September 2010 – reflects the degree of freedom journalists and news organisations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by each state to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.

Best and worst

Finland, Iceland, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland shared top spot on the 2010 index, with no recorded censorship, threats, intimidation or physical reprisals towards members of the media.

Denmark, which held the number one position in the previous year’s survey, now ranks 11th.

The bottom end of the index remains unchanged, with Turkmenistan (176th), North Korea (177th) and Eritrea (178th) occupying the last three spots as authorities there continued a clampdown on independent media activity. These three countries were always at the end of the table, with only their position in the bottom three changing occasionally.

“Our latest world press freedom index contains welcome surprises, highlights sombre realities and confirms certain trends,” said RSF’s secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said at the launch of the ninth annual index.

“More than ever before, we see that economic development, institutional reform and respect for fundamental rights do not necessarily go hand in hand. The defence of media freedom continues to be a battle, a battle of vigilance in the democracies of old Europe and a battle against oppression and injustice in the totalitarian regimes still scattered across the globe.”

Julliard paid homage to human rights activists, journalists and bloggers throughout the world who speak out against press oppression.

“We are also worried by the harsher line being taken by governments at the other end of the index,” he said. “Rwanda, Yemen and Syria have joined Burma and North Korea in the group of the world’s most repressive countries towards journalists. This does not bode well for 2011. Unfortunately, the trend in the most authoritarian countries is not one of improvement.”

The BRICS bloc – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – show major differences in the press freedom situation. South Africa leads the group at 38. Brazil (58th) has implemented legislation that is more favourable to journalists, and as a result has risen 12 places. India, meanwhile, fell 17 places to 122nd. Russia sits at 140 and China, despite what RSF calls “an astonishingly vibrant and active blogosphere”, is placed at 171st because of continuing censorship and imprisonment of dissidents.

Press freedom in Africa

Within Africa, South Africa comes in fifth position, after Namibia (joint 21st), and Ghana, Cape Verde and Mali (joint 26th).

In 2009 Ghana topped the list of African countries at 27, with Mali at joint 30th and South Africa in third place at 33.

South Africa lost five places in the latest ranking because of attacks on journalists during the 2010 Fifa World Cup, but mostly because of the attitude of senior members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) towards the press. During a press conference in April, controversial ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema threw out BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher while verbally insulting him. The government’s proposed media tribunal and bill restricting the disclosure of information are also threats to press freedom in the country.

A number of African countries celebrated 50 years of independence in 2010, but in many cases the press situation was no reason to rejoice.

While the Horn of Africa was still the region with the least press freedom, said RSF, East Africa and the Great Lakes region showed a worrying trend of reversal.

RSF said that in 2010 in Eritrea, at the bottom of the table, at least 30 journalists and four other media professionals were held in dire conditions, incommunicado and with no right to a trial. The government was silent on their condition. Foreign media, said RSF, are not welcome.

In Somalia (161st), the media were often victims of the ongoing civil war. Sudan, whose citizens voted earlier in 2011 to split the country into north and south, had an unfortunate year in 2010 in terms of the media. It fell 24 places and had Africa’s second worst ranking. This was partly because Rai-al-Shaab, the opposition daily, was shut down, partly becaise of the incarceration of five of its staff members, and mostly because the government had again begun to monitor print media and restrict its voice.

Rwanda fell 12 places to 169th, Ethiopia dropped a place to 140, Nigeria fell 10 places to 145, and the Democratic Republic of Congo went from 146 to 148.

Uganda also dropped 10 places to 96, but increasing violence against journalists may mean that this position is in jeopardy for 2011.

Kenya made a big recovery, jumping from 96 to 70, and Chad also bettered its position from 132 to 112. Niger jumped a respectable 35 places from 139 to 104. Angola, too, earned itself a higher ranking, rising from 119 in 2009 to 104 in 2010. However, said RSF, a Radio Despertar journalist’s still unsolved murder in September 2010 has cast a pall on its achievement.

Two more African countries joined the world’s top 50 nations in terms of respect for press freedom. They are Tanzania (41st) and Burkina Faso (49th).

Sharp decline

A number of countries, including the Philippines, Greece, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan experienced a sharp fall compared to their position in 2009.

In the Philippines, reported the RSF, this was because of the massacre of around 30 journalists by a local baron. Ukraine has seen a sleady deterioration in press freedom since the election of its new president Viktor Yanukovych. Greece has also experienced attacks on journalists as well as political unrest, and in Kyrgyzstan the situation of ethnic hatred amidst political upheaval led to the country’s fall in rank.

How the index is compiled

Reporters Without Borders compiles its index by asking 14 freedom of expression organisations on five continents, 130 correspondents around the world, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer 50 questions relating to the state of press freedom in 168 countries.

The questionnaire includes every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of issues, searches and harassment), and registers the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for such violations.

It also takes account of the legal situation affecting the news media – such as penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly in certain areas, and the existence of a regulatory body – and the behaviour of the authorities towards the state-owned news media and the foreign press.

It also takes account of the main obstacles to the free flow of information on the internet.