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Key findings
  • Three-quarters (74%) of South Africans say the media should “constantly investigate and report on government mistakes and corruption,” rejecting the idea “too much reporting on negative events … only harms the country.”
  • A similarly clear majority (72%) insist on media freedom, while 23% endorse the government’s right to prevent the publication of things it disapproves of.
  • About seven in 10 citizens (68%) say the country’s media is “somewhat free” or “completely free” to report and comment on the news without government interference, but 28% disagree with that assessment.
  • More than half (57%) of South Africans think the public and the media should have access to government information, while 30% say such information should be for use by government officials only and should not be shared with the public. o In particular, strong majorities say that local government budgets (79%) and government bids and contracts (75%) should be shared with the public.
  • Television is the most popular source of news in South Africa. But radio and social media follow close behind, regularly providing news to more than seven in 10 citizens.

In the recently released 2024 World Press Freedom Index, South Africa has dropped from 25th to 38th position out of 180 countries globally (Reporters Without Borders, 2024; Media Institute  of Southern Africa, 2024). While the country’s robust media scene still ranks third in Africa, after Mauritania and Namibia, it faces clear challenges.  

In April, the online Daily Maverick (2024) initiated a 24-hour shutdown to highlight the issue of  inadequate funding for media outlets, which has had grave implications for the country’s  media pluralism and quality of journalism (Daniels, 2024). Over the past 15 years, nearly 70%  of South Africa’s media workforce has been lost to job cuts (Daily Maverick, 2024).  

Added to that, some journalists endure harassment, cyberbullying, social media toxicity, and  fear that digital threats might become real-life attacks. Women in the profession are especially vulnerable (CIPESA, 2022). In 2019, veteran journalist Karima Brown faced hateful  online abuse and threats after her phone number was leaked on social media (Committee  to Protect Journalists, 2019).  

More recently, legal journalist Karyn Maughan and a state prosecutor have been embroiled  in prolonged court action instituted by former President Jacob Zuma, who claims that the  pair illegally leaked court documents pertaining to his corruption case (Kgosana, 2024), a move that critics have branded as a ploy to intimidate journalists and restrict the public’s  right to information (South African National Editors Forum, 2023).  

Ahead of the hotly contested May election, President Cyril Ramaphosa has been accused  of placing media freedom in jeopardy after he was heard in a leaked audio recording from  the African National Congress’ National Executive Committee meeting insisting that the  party will not tolerate any negative coverage because “TV stations have no right to be  negative” toward the ruling party (Sithole, 2024; Stone, 2024).  

A week later, the State Security Agency summoned the head of news of the South African  Broadcasting Corporation for security vetting, including a polygraph test, in what critics have  termed “pre-election intimidation” (Campaign for Free Expression, 2024). 

What are South Africans’ perceptions and evaluations of their media landscape?  

Findings from the most recent Afrobarometer survey, in late 2022, show that most South  Africans say the media should act as a watchdog over the government, constantly  investigating and reporting on government mistakes and corruption. Citizens value media  freedom and reject the notion that the government should be able to prevent publications it  disapproves of. Most citizens say the public and the media should have access to  information held by public authorities, such as budgets and contracts. And a strong majority  say South Africa’s media today is at least “somewhat” free. 

Television is the most popular news source in South Africa, but radio and social media also  play a vital role, regularly providing news to more than seven in 10 citizens.

Asafika Mpako

Asafika is the communications coordinator for Southern Africa

Stephen Ndoma

Stephen is the assistant project manager for Southern Africa