Is what was dubbed “the miracle” of the South African transition from apartheid censorship to democracy and freedom of expression coming undone? Does the country now have the diverse and vibrant media culture essential to any functioning democracy? How, if at all, have U.S. and other development agencies contributed to this?
The answers to these questions are inevitably nuanced. Things are rarely black and white in any transition to democracy, and the apartheid legacy of systematic underdevelopment and brutal silencing of the majority of citizens was not undone with the casting of the 1994 ballot–nor with the signing of an internationally lauded constitution.
In the 1980s, independent anti-apartheid newspapers launched with the assistance of international donors contributed toward exposing the brutality of apartheid and to the eventual demise of the system. They played a critical role in informing South Africans and the international community about the government’s violent crackdown on any resistance to its racist policies. However, while these papers successfully defied attempts by the apartheid government to silence them under successive states of emergency, only one of them has survived the cuts in donor funding that accompanied the transition to democracy.
Although there has been a dramatic growth in broadcasting with the freeing of the airwaves from state control, South African media now–almost two decades after the first democratic elections–is one of the most concentrated in the world. This, and the consequent focus by the big media companies on profits over editorial quality and integrity, has limited citizens’ access to a wide range of in-depth news and analysis.
In the meantime, international organizations such as Freedom House have downgraded South Africa’s freedom of expression ratings in response to concerns about threatened new laws in South Africa. Judges and courts in the country, meanwhile, generally have defended critical principles relating to freedom of expression, setting important case law precedents on issues such as the importance of protecting journalists’ sources. The robust and at times very heated debates about such possible laws–and what freedom of the media and the rights to privacy and dignity really mean in practice–are themselves, it is argued by some, essential growing pains of a new democracy and preferable to silence.
Donor support specifically for media has in the meantime been limited since 1994–although media projects have at times benefited from aid earmarked for other issues such as gender, health, and social justice. Information on media support specifically is therefore difficult to track as very few funders maintain detailed, readily available data on how much support they have provided to the sector. As a result , this report on funding support for news media in South Africa is more indicative of broad trends than statistically precise.
The Open Society Foundation of South Africa–part of George Soros’s network of institutions–seems to be the only U.S.-based private organization that has a dedicated program for media, though organizations such as Atlantic Philanthropies have supported some news projects. Those interviewed for this research all said that the major challenge they face (as donors or beneficiaries) is in “proving” measurable outcomes for this aid. Such concerns however are not peculiar to South Africa or to organizations working there. A review of other studies into support for news organizations in other countries shows that these challenges face media in other parts of the world.
While the paucity of comprehensive information on funding for the media in post-apartheid South Africa makes it difficult to reach conclusive findings about its overall impact, it is clear from this study that the few cases in which dedicated, targeted support has been provided for quality news content it has contributed to the development of islands of investigative journalism excellence. This in turn has ensured that those with economic or political power are held to account, and it has drawn attention to ongoing struggles for social justice. It is further evident that the need for independent, robust news media and for advocacy for freedom of expression does not diminish with the introduction of democracy. It is, rather, critical to deepening and entrenching such democracy.