A reflection on journalism

There is nothing, amid South Africa's vast censorship apparatus, preventing the country's media from publishing the information that a prominent prisoner has contracted a potentially lethal disease. Indeed, the fact that the prisoner was an internationally known figure whose seventieth birthday had just been celebrated by millions of people throughout the world would have made it a logical lead story for all South African papers, radio and television. Particularly as it was possible to establish that the ageing prisoner had not been hospitalised until he began coughing blood in his cell. But when Nelson Mandela contracted tuberculosis in July 1988, the first newspaper to publish the fact was a British Sunday paper. This was followed by twenty-four hours' silence, after which the news was published by newspapers in Holland and Denmark, This was followed by a flurry of stories in papers and radio stations in Canada, the United States, Sweden and Germany. Only three days later did South African editors wake up to the fact that their country's best known and most widely supported political figure might be dying? Almost a week passed between the first worried rumours of Mandela's condition and the first press reports in South Africa. These 150 hours of silence speaks volumes about the state of the South African press.

Battered by years of government invasions into its right to publish - and three years of all-out assault - the South African media is a shadow of that which endless newspaper bannings, suspensions and seizures ago proudly claimed the title of the 'freest in Africa'. Whether that claim was ever true - and the rigour of the media in many unexpected corners of the continent suggests that it was not - is less of an issue than the fact that South African journalists, most particularly conservatives, believed it. Today they can no longer keep up even the pretence.

Under the leadership of President P.W. Botha, who sailed into office on wave of reformism in 1978, the ruling National Party has steadily tightened the screw (and all other areas of social and political life) in South Africa until today, is often easier to understand what is happening in the country reports in several foreign countries, than by reading South African papers themselves. It is possible to chart this decline through the steadily expanding State of Emergency restrictions on the media - restrictions which aimed first at blotting out public awareness of the mass, semi-insurrectionary resistance which characterized South Africa in 1984-85, by banning reports on events.

When this failed to stop enterprising journalists from seeking - and finding loopholes - in the sloppily drafted restrictions, the state empowered itself to suspend newspapers, the contents of which it disapproved. Finally, when this too failed to stop at least some of the truth from being published, the state in 1988 turned its attention to individual journalists - granting Home Affairs' Minister Stoffel Botha (increasingly the personification of the assault on the press) the power to require journalists to register with the government, and to withhold registration from those individuals he felt did not conform with apartheid's view of acceptable journalism. In this he has been - temporarily - thwarted by an unexpected combination of journalists, editors, businessmen fearing such a blatant move would spark further sanctions, and Western diplomats similarly worried. But it was a matter of time before this next logical step in the gagging process was enacted. There are reports that Botha, embarrassed and angered by his temporary defeat, sought another route towards the same objective.

Before outlining that route, it is worth returning to Nelson Mandela. Just a week before news broke that he had contracted tuberculosis, Mandela had unwittingly been the subject of a government-press conflict, with P.W. Botha publicly demanding that the pro-government Nasionale newspaper corporation sack the editor of its biggest paper, the Johannesburg-based Beeld, because he used his newspaper columns to lobby for the release of Mandela. Nasionale's board of directors has not yet obliged, although its managing director, Ton Vosloo, has been one of the leading proponents, within the media, of further restrictions. We will return shortly to the persuasive Mr. Vosloo and his plans for the press.

For the moment it is worth remaining with the Mandela story. Although the South African press was among the last to pick up on the fact that he had contracted tuberculosis, South African journalists were not. It was a South African journalist working for The Observer in Britain who broke the story, and other South Africans working for various European publications that followed up. It is an indication, albeit a small one, that South African journalism - unlike much of the media - has not yet surrendered to Pretoria's demands for tame, 'responsible' (i.e. uncritical) reporting. The more important point, however, remains the first one we made. Although there was no ban on reporting Mandela's condition, no local publication did so -until well after newspaper readers throughout the world were aware of it. In seeking the reasons for this, it is necessary to look beyond the unremitting pressure directed by the government at the media (although that pressure forms a part of the broader picture).

Timid Animal

Briefly, the South African media can be characterized as follows:

An electronic media (radio and TV) owned or controlled through licensing by the government. A ‘mainstream’ press of which well over 90% is owned by a cartel of four major newspaper groups - which also own the only non-government television channel (which in terms of its licensing contract is barred from running news). Because these papers draw their main revenue from advertising, and the people able to afford commodities and services advertised are mainly white, upper-income city dwellers, these papers cater mainly for white, upper-income city dwellers although most South Africans are neither white, well-paid (when they are employed and up to 25% are not); nor city dwellers. A small struggling 'alternative media', made up of a handful of weekly monthly publications, a half-dozen independent news agencies and not many union publications. These media, and their journalists have been the prime target government action.

The electronic media is almost exclusively pro-government. Until the late seventies, the mainstream press was either conservative (the Afrikaans-language papers or liberal (the English-language papers). Those mainstream paper which tried to break this mould - World in 1977 and Sunday Post in 1979 - by covering newsreaders were both interested in and which reflected their interests, were banned. These papers were not banned for committing any crimes - indeed they were never challenged in court. Rather they were closed for accepting a single principle that is anathema to the government: that black people were entitled role running of their own lives. They were also banned for attempting to assert their journalistic right to report on the views and actions of organizations- most notably the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) - which repeated have shown have the support of the majority of South Africans This alone would not have turned the South African mainstream press into animal it is today (or would be if it were not for individual courageous journalists). The Rand Daily Mail, a 'white' newspaper with a majority of black readers widely regarded as the conscience of the South African press, survived for a further five years, opposing apartheid to the end.

But the vast cost of apartheid had, by the mid-1970s - combined with an international recession to distort seriously the South African economy- contributed to the political explosion of 16 June 1976. The belated introduction of television to South Africa added to this to erode rapidly newspaper-advertising revenue. Newspaper owners, happy to allow their publications to oppose apartheid while they remained profitable, moved sharply right as profits plummeted. The last years of the Rand Daily Mail are the most vivid example of this. In early 1985, after sacking two outspoken editors in quick succession, the owners of the Mail closed the paper. A month later, however, the four major newspaper groups – among them the owners of the Mail - announced that the government had granted them a licence to start the country's first and only privately owned TV station. Ton Vosloo had brokered the deal. The mainstream papers were looking elsewhere for profits and - said opposition spokesmen - had traded the country's most highly regarded newspaper for those profits.

The process continued: in pursuit of profits, the papers steadily eroded the quality of journalism - cutting journalists' salaries (in real terms) year by year, until at one stage they were among the lowest-paid white collar workers in the country. 'If I need journalists, I can get them out of the gutter', one particularly notorious newspaper manager said at the time. As journalists' salaries dropped below those of policemen and teachers - both notoriously badly paid professions in South African entire generation of committed, assertive and progressive journalists are forced out of the papers. Some like those who broke the Mandela story and those who went onto establish the tiny but vigorous 'alternative media', remained in the profession. Dozens of others moved out entirely - with dozens emigrating through the early eighties. Those who remained behind were, for the most part, too timid or too inexperienced to challenge their newspaper hierarchies and the state.

The explosion of political resistance that turned South Africa's black townships into a bloody battleground in 1984, turned the newspapers themselves into battlegrounds: young reporters, fresh from witnessing scenes of brutal repression in the townships, fought bitter verbal battles to get their stories into the papers against tough resistance from newspaper managements which feared that such stories would both terrify their predominantly white audiences and – more importantly - scare off their advertisers.

South African Euphemism

A steady stream of politically and economically motivated newspaper closures, combined with this newspaper management retreat to the right, created both the motivation and the opportunity for the establishment of the major 'alternative Media initiatives - the Weekly Mail, New Nation, South and, belatedly, a Durban-based independent weekly newspaper due on the streets in 1989. These were, without exception, established by journalists alienated by the shifting if newspaper proprietors. These papers, outspoken, openly opposed to apartheid and unconstrained by the conservatism of advertisers - most substantially foreign-funded prime targets of media restrictions introduced by the State of Emergency rule in most urban areas in 1985 and, from 11 June 1986, nationally.

The first time around, the state banned reporting on 'unrest' - a South African euphemism for manifestations of popular rebellion that drew in millions to challenge apartheid more fundamentally than it had ever been challenged before. Significantly it also banned reporting on the actions of 'security forces in curbing this resistance. In the next 24 months it consistently narrowed down the space for reporting: when journalists found a loophole in reporting on the often-brutal actions of South African soldiers and police, the authorities made it an offence to be present at an incident of 'unrest' or security force action.

When this failed to stop the coverage, the apartheid government granted Stoffel arbitrary powers to suspend the publication of newspapers for up to three weeklies and up to six months for monthlies. After delaying for several months-it is still unclear why - Botha used these powers early in 1986 lie Church-backed New Nation [whose editor, Zwelakhe Sisulu, has been detained for much of the newspaper's existence) and its Cape Town equivalent South. Weekly Mail managed to survive for some months by tying Botha into a complex and interminable set of negotiations. With the new emergency regulations-each set lasted for 12 months - from 11 June 1988 Botha retained the right to suspend the papers, but appeared to be unkeen to do so because of the international outcry resulting from the action against New Nationand South.

The method he chose instead was to introduce a compulsory register of Journalists granting himself the power to arbitrarily de-register them, thus making it can offence punishable by up to ten years' jail to continue practising as journalists committing journalism as one South African writer describe it.

The register was due to take effect in August 1988 and for much of July it seemed he would succeed. In drafting the regulations, Botha defined the requirement of registration as affecting only those undertaking 'news agency business', while at the same time exempting the national South African Press Agency, and 14 international agencies. Only the half-dozen independent agencies would be affected, he said. The definition of 'news agency business' was so widely drafted, however, that it would have covered virtually every journalist in the country - thus empowering Botha to pick off at leisure those he felt were unacceptably critical of apartheid. It looks little time for newspaper proprietors to realize the implications. Once they did, several of them - notably Harvey Tyson, editor of the country's biggest daily, The Star - threw their weight behind a 'Save the Press' campaign organized by journalists to head off the government register.

They succeeded in spreading sufficient concern among local businessmen - their sensitivity to government action heightened by the prospect of tough US sanctions under the Dellum's Bill, then about to go before Congress - that several national business groupings approached the government to warn of the potential consequences of such a direct attack on the press. South African based diplomats of Pretoria’s few remaining Western allies endorsed their warnings. Botha backtracked hastily - saying he would redraft the restrictions to exempt the 'mainstream' press. The retreat came too late: having been galvanized into action by the threat of a register, Tyson and others responded by saying that exemption -implying that those exempted would be acceptable to Pretoria - was just as bad. 'We would be labelled propagandists for Pretoria,' a statement by journalists warned.

In nearly August, Botha retreated further, dropping the idea of a register. For South African journalists it was a hollow victory. All they had won was the right to report within the confines of restrictions which do not allow them to be legally present at a political protest. The reality of their situation was driven home when police reacted to a protest by members of the Federation of Transvaal Women (Fedtraw) in Johannesburg by ordering the women to disperse - but detaining most of the journalists covering the protest.

Nor has Botha given up in his bid to bring journalists into line: in September 1988 he summoned to a meeting the media owners' organization, the Newspaper press Union (NPU), now with Ton Vosloo as vice-president, to demand that to toughen up the Media Council - a voluntary body formed by the NPU as a watchdog over member papers. Formed in response to government threats in the early eighties to form its own version, the Media Council has operated as a mildly liberal defender of press freedom since its inception. So far media owners have resisted attempts by the government and by Vosloo to grant the Media Council disciplinary rights over non-members and - more sinisterly - to grant powers to suspend and fine publications and journalists. As we write, the outcome of the meeting is not yet known. What is known is that the government is holding out as bait the offer of commercial local radio station licenses - long championed by Vosloo as a vehicle to boost the advertising revenue of the 'Big Four' media corporations. Last time around, the 'Big Four Rand Daily Mail for the only non-government TV channel.

Nor is this the only threat hanging over the heads of South African Not satisfied with the powerful gag they already have on our right South Africans' right to information, the government has threatened several further steps towards absolute media silence - among them a ban on reporting on 'political' trials until final judgement. At the same time, the country highest court, the Appeal Court, has overturned a ruling by the liberal Natal courts which last threw out several clauses of the emergency regulations as they affected the media. Although this Appeal Court judgement is largely academic-the government had already redrafted the regulations in a way that they would stick-it is a further sign that we cannot rely on the system to defend us Similarly there has been a growing recognition among journalists that the freedom they hold highest - freedom of information - cannot be realized in a society that does not recognize and enforce all other basic human freedoms. Journalists have thus engaged in a series of debates on how to integrate themselves and their struggle for freedom of information with the struggle for a free society in South Africa. And they have done so recognizing the need to retain independence as journalists - heeding the warning voiced by ANC media official Victor Moche during the CASA conference in Amsterdam: 'A sycophantic press is the most fertile breeding ground for tyranny.'

The CASA conference was, in fact, something of a watershed for this trend among journalists - bringing together media workers from all over the country and from the national liberation movement based outside the country to debate and begin synthesizing the views of different elements in the broad democratic movement on the role of the media. That process is still continuing, and will almost certainly continue to do so well into the post-apartheid era in our country.