South Africa is facing several threats to freedom of expression with at least 59 separate
incidents where journalists were subjected to physical or verbal attacks and harassment,
Amnesty International South Africa, Campaign for Free Expression, Committee to Protect
Journalists, Media Monitoring Africa, and the South African National Editors’ Forum said on
World Press Freedom Day.
These include attacks on journalists by police, political parties, and the public; online threats
targeting journalists such as hate speech, harassment, and doxxing; the surveillance of
journalists by state intelligence; overly punitive legislation that targets journalists or limits their
ability to report; and the ongoing vulnerability of senior journalists at the public broadcaster.
All of these are restricting the right to free expression in the country and have the potential to
limit the right of the public to access information in the public interest. These issues must be
properly addressed by the state in order to prevent a weakening of free expression in the
Last month, our five organisations made a joint submission to the UN Universal Periodic
Review (UPR) focusing on South Africa’s compliance with international human rights obligations
related to freedom of opinion and expression. The UPR is a review of the human rights records
of all UN member states held every four years. Our submission also looks at progress made
since the last UPR review in 2017.
The submission details concerns over a number of issues, notably the physical attacks and
harassment of journalists; online attacks and surveillance of journalists, “false news” and
editorial interference at the SABC.
While the media in South Africa enjoys more freedom than many of their counterparts on the
continent and other parts of the world, they still find themselves facing a barrage of attacks on
a daily basis, physically and online. Trust in the media has also waned over the past few years,
especially because of misinformation and disinformation.
Physical attacks and harassment of journalists
In the past five years there have been at least 59 separate incidents where journalists
working in the field have been assaulted, or verbally and physically harassed, preventing them
from doing their work. The main perpetrators of these attacks have been the South African
Police Services (SAPS); political parties or groups and their supporters; communities where
reporting occurs; and criminals.
The attacks restrict the ability of journalists to perform their tasks properly, and therefore have
direct consequences for freedom of the media and freedom of expression in
The organisations were concerned that the attacks speak to an underlying lack of
acceptance of the importance of a free media and the extent to which they are the result of
deliberate attempts by politicians, including cabinet ministers, to undermine the media.
We have also seen an increase in online attacks on journalists. Since the last reporting period,
journalists have been subjected to hate speech, death threats, threats of physical harm, and
public attacks by politicians and public figures.
Of specific concern has been the targeting of journalists or the media in general by politicians
which often leads to further online harassment and intimidation by their political supporters.
Threats to female journalists have also been pervasive, with many of these attacks being
gendered and include misogynistic attacks, death threats, and threats of rape.
These attacks undermine media freedoms and can have a chilling effect on a journalist’s
willingness to perform his or her duties, sometimes leading to self-censorship. Journalists are
also unable to find easy recourse to justice.
Surveillance of journalists
We have raised concern that reports of state surveillance of journalists by the Crime
Intelligence division of the SAPS persist, with the latest incidents reported as recently as March
2021. This is despite the Constitutional Court declaring the Regulation of Interception of
Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act 70 of 200219 (or
Editorial interference at the public broadcaster
In the previous UPR review, South Africa supported a recommendation to ensure that
journalists, especially those working at the public broadcaster, can work without fear of
reprisals for expressing critical opinions, including when reporting on issues sensitive to the
Not enough was being done to ensure the editorial independence of the SABC. This includes
potential for board interference in editorial decision-making, ostensibly to secure preferential
coverage for the ruling-party.
Despite several house-cleaning exercises over the past five years, including a revision to the
public broadcaster’s editorial code (which is considered a benchmark for editorial
independence at the public broadcaster and is supported by the industry and media
watchdogs) and reassurances from the broadcaster of its commitment to editorial integrity
and independence, allegations continue to surface of undue political influence in editorial
“False News”/Mis and Disinformation
In 2020, during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, regulations were issued in relation to
the Disaster Management Act of 2002. Section 14 (2) of the regulations made it an offence to
publish any statement “with the intention to deceive any other person” about Covid-19, or
any measure taken by the government to address Covid-19.
We raised concern that attempts to criminalise the spread of “false news” will largely be
ineffective, can be misused, and will have a chilling effect on media freedoms. Leaving “false
news” unaddressed is also a problem, and can damage public trust in journalists, and result in a
loss in media credibility, as was suggested in the 2021 Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility
initiated by the Sanef.
However, criminalising the spread of information over educating the public and encouraging
fact-checking and other mechanisms to increase the public’s access to trustworthy, objective
and reliable data is likely to lead to serious infringements of media freedoms, including the
misuse of this legislation by partisan authorities, censorship and self-censorship, and, as has
been pointed out, could delay access to critical information that is in the public interest.
Other concerns raised in the submission related to:
● Cybercrimes Act
● Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill
● Threats to whistleblowers
● Review of the Protection of State Information Bill
● Amendments to the Films and Publications Act
● Children and the media
Read the full UN UPR submission on Freedom of Expression here.
For further information or requests for interviews, please contact:
Amnesty International South Africa Media and Communications Officer, Genevieve Quintal on
+27 64 890 9224 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Campaign for Free Expression (CFE) Director, Anton Harber, on email@example.com
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Africa Program Coordinator, Angela Quintal, on +1 212-
300-9004 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) Director, William Bird, on +27 11 788 1278 or
South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) Executive Director, Reggy Moalusi on +27 10 001
8971 or email@example.com