The media coverage of the upgrades to President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla home required government to "dust off" apartheid-era legislation, media law expert Dario Milo said on Friday.
"The Public Works Minister's [Thulas Nxesi] response to the [Nkandla] expose was twofold," Milo said at Wits University in Johannesburg.
"[These were] to call for the City Press, which first broke the story, to be investigated for the crime of unlawfully processing a 'top secret' document, and to refuse to answer questions about the Nkandla funding because it had been declared a 'national key point'."
He said both these propositions required Nxesi to use apartheid-era security legislation such as the Protection of Information Act of 1982 and the National Key Points Act of 1980.
"This is hardly the type of legislation I would want to be relying on if I were in the minister's position."
The use of these laws was a current threat to media freedom and was being used to stifle transparency and accountability, he said.
City Press reported that R203-million of taxpayers' money would be spent on the upgrade, with Zuma paying only 5% of the bill – around R10-million.
On October 5, Nxesi said that Zuma's Nkandla home was not unique and was part of the work undertaken at various security sites.
"When President Zuma was elected president, it was a requirement understood by all that the security would have to be beefed up at places of high security risk," Nxesi said at the time.
He said the same upgrades were done in Houghton and Qunu, where former president Nelson Mandela's homes were situated, at the Union Buildings, at the president's office at Tuynhuis, Parliament, and at King's House in Durban.
Milo was speaking at a South African Media Freedom Day event, hosted by the South African National Editors Forum, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and the university.
Media Freedom Day commemorates October 19, 1977, which was known as "Black Wednesday" when, under the apartheid government, three newspaper were banned and journalists jailed.
Milo said those in power had to try to refrain from readily turning to defamation or dignity law to stifle criticism of their official conduct.
"The best example of a person wielding this power who is fond of using defamation and dignity laws is our very own President Jacob Zuma," he said.
"Between 2006 and 2010, the president instituted court action in 15 cases, suing eight newspapers, a radio station, two cartoonists, a columnist, op-ed writers, and journalists."
That was nearly four lawsuits a year, he said.
"The majority of [Zuma's] claims, which total over R50-million, are not about news stories that the president regards as inaccurate, but rather concern criticism of his conduct."
This was all after Zuma saying in his inauguration address in 2009 that "we must defend the freedom of the media".
Despite the threats to media freedom Milo said he took solace in the courts and urged the media to feel the same.
"It is our courts after all who have the final say in matters of media freedom," he said.