Press freedom was often the subject of debate in South Africa. Journalists are determined to defend what they have won, and they constantly reminded the authorities of their commitments.

The right of journalists to protect their sources was at the centre of all the debates about press freedom in South Africa in 2003. The fragility of this essential principle was highlighted when a journalist was called before a commission investigating charges that the national director of public prosecutions had been a spy for the apartheid security services.

Several organisations that defend free expression voiced concern about the issue. The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) stressed the essential role played by a free press in a democracy and called on the authorities not to intrude into journalists' work without good reason.

President Thabo Mbeki again accused the South African press of racism. "What our country needs are facts, not allegations," he said, alluding to certain news media.

Much of the press took the government to task over its failure to take a stand on the repeated human rights abuses in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Several editorialists accused President Mbeki of turning a blind eye to Robert Mugabe's excesses. Relations between the two countries deteriorated and in May, Zimbabwean information minister Jonathan Moyo sued the South African weekly, the Sunday Times, accusing it of trying to divide the two nations.

Driven into a corner, the Mbeki administration refused to meddle with the news media. Presidential spokesman Mbeki Khumalo said South Africa had laws guaranteeing press freedom and the government had no intention of interfering. The government was often criticised and mocked in a way it disliked, he said, but it respected the right of the press to do so, because the law allowed people to write what they like.

Two journalists threatened

Lexi Herholdt and Nthabiseng Makhongoana of the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) were taken prisoner in a school in the northwest of the country on 23 January 2003 while preparing a report on the principal's refusal to issue student cards to pupils who could not afford the registration fee. Several teachers threatened the journalists and locked them in an office while they listened to the interviews that had been recorded on a cassette. They let the journalists go but confiscated the tape.

Harassment and obstruction

The office of the president created a pool of accredited journalists at the start of April 2003 in order to facilitate relations between government and media. President Mbeki asked the pool to handle information with "all the necessary sensitivity." The foreign press was excluded because the pool was just for the local media, the government spokesman said.

James Shikwambane, a sports journalist with SABC, was suspended on 26 May after asking sports minister Ngconde Balfour during a live broadcast if he was responsible for appointing the national soccer team's coach. The minister had refused to answer and told Shikwambane to talk to his spokesman. Shikwambane had then taken calls from listeners who had criticised the minister's behaviour.

In October, former Sunday Times reporter Ranjeni Munusamy was called to testify before the Hefer commission, which was set up to investigate allegations of spying during the apartheid era. The commission asked him to reveal the sources of a 7 September article in the newspaper City Press in which he said national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka had spied for the apartheid security services during the 1980s. Munusamy received threatening phone calls warning him that he would suffer if he disclosed his sources. At the end of November, City Press issued an apology in which it said the information in Munusamy's article was not entirely correct. Judge Hefer finally said on 5 December that Munusamy's testimony was not essential and that the commission could carry on without it.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.