For many, the term ‘media freedom’ refers to the notion of allowing journalists to work freely and independently.
However, it is important to recognise that this expression does not only refer to the media alone. Julia Reid writes that “if we apply the idea of media freedom to media producers only, with no regard to the audience, then we are only considering half of the picture and ignoring what is the more important half.” Just as important to the notion of media freedom is the ability and ease of access that the ordinary citizen has to the country’s media platforms.
Media freedom does not exist where the ordinary citizen is not able to access media content, no matter how free the press may be.
The case of South Africa is pertinent yet admittedly complicated in this regard: on the one hand, it is a country of diminishing media freedom in terms of the tangible freedom of the press; on the other side of the ‘media freedom’ coin, it is a country of vast and growing inequality, which recognises 11 official languages, and in which the necessary distribution of any media content whatsoever falls well short of what is required.
Media freedom needs to be thought of in these two categories: the freedom of the press to work independently, and the freedom of the audience to access this work.