Freedom of expression and media freedom is protected in Article 16 of the constitution, with reasonable and justifiable limitations. Access to information is also guaranteed in Section 32(1) of the constitution and protected under the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000, allowing access to any information held by the state and private bodies that is required for the exercise and protection of any rights. Since its adoption on 1 July 2020, the Protection of Personal Information Act has bolstered freedom of expression and the right to privacy. This legislation aims to protect citizens’ personal information and balance the right to privacy with other rights, such as access to information. In February 2021, the Constitutional Court upheld the 2019 High Court decision that declared certain sections of the Regulation of Interception of Communication and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act unconstitutional as they violate the right to privacy. The Act had allowed for surveillance and the interception of communication.
These positive developments were hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected freedom of expression and the operating environment of the media and journalists. As in other countries, journalism was considered an essential service in South Africa, which meant that with permission, journalists could continue reporting and were exempt from restrictions that kept most of the population in lockdown. Despite this, journalists found it difficult to access information, making first-hand news-gathering difficult. The Disaster Management Act of 2002 was also applied to manage the lockdowns. Under this Act, essential workers (including journalists) were required to have permits to travel to cover stories. In addition, the government’s attempts to prevent the spread of misinformation related to COVID-19 affected the free flow of information, as information became centralised within the Covid Command Centre. This had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and media freedom in South Africa.Journalists also faced further challenges regarding access to personal protective equipment and training on reporting safely during a pandemic.
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