The Prime Minister announces the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry into the reporting of defence matters, to be headed by Justice M.T. Steyn


Chained newspaper.

Wednesday, 5 December 1979

More recent initiatives by the post 1994 SA government to establish a media tribunal have been condemned as an attempt to introduce 'apartheid style draconian measures' aimed at regulating the media. A similar attempt by the Nationalist Party (NP) Government was rejected by opposition parties in 1979, leading to the appointment of the Steyn Commission. The Commission was appointed to inquire into the line between the rights of the media to inform and the right of the public to be informed, on the one hand, and the interests of the security of the state on the other.

While there are striking similarities between the two events, the political contexts are completely different. In 1979 the NP government had already clamped down on media organisations considered hostile to the government. In October 1977, newspapers that were seen to be critical of the NP Government's policies had been banned along with 19 Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) formations. This left a vacuum in which existing newspapers were wary of publishing material that was damaging to government, lest they too were banned.

The ANC government is today faced with media that is allowed a much greater degree of freedom. This allows the media to challenge the government on any measures considered to be a threat to its freedom. It is pressure from the media in South Africa, coupled with intense condemnation from several civil society formations and the international community that has forced the government to shelve the idea of establishing a Media Tribunal.

The NP government on the other hand, seem to have appointed the Steyn Commission merely to allay the fears of opposition parties in Parliament at the time. There was a plethora of legislative measures in place that the NP government used in the late 1970's and early 1980s to contain opposition. In fact, between 1979, when the Steyn Commission was established, and 1984, when the first major unrest since 1976 broke out in the Vaal, the government had the media under control.  

The Apartheid Government was never really seriously challenged by the media until the Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA), established in 1977, was reconstituted into its present form in 1983. Within a year of its reconstitution, South Africa was plunged into a countrywide unrest that lasted until the first democratic elections in 1994. The media played a significant role, exposing excesses committed by Security structures including numerous assassinations of political activists.

• Giliomee, H and Mbenga, B. (eds) (2007) New History of South Africa, (Cape Town) p.349
• Seekings, J, (2000) The UDF: A history of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983 - 1991 (Cape Town) p. 84

Last updated : 04-Dec-2014

This article was produced by South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011

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