Attacks on the Press 1999: South Africa

Thabo Mbeki succeeded President Nelson Mandela following the resounding victory of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa’s second democratic election on June 2.

Local journalists worried that the ANC’s victory would herald a new era of media repression. Neither Mandela nor Mbeki had ever disguised his dislike for the press, complaining that newspapers focused only on the country’s problems while paying scant attention to government achievements.

The leading media controversy of 1999 was the South African Human Rights Commission’s investigation into racism in local media. The investigation began at the end of 1998, amid government accusations that the white-dominated South African press focused disproportionately on stories of corruption and crime committed by blacks and that one of the country’s leading anti-apartheid newspapers was even leading a campaign to discredit prominent black people. The commission announced that it intended to investigate racism “in what is produced and disseminated by the media.” Although it did not have the power to punish, it could recommend new press regulation laws to parliament.

In its November report, the commission said that while most journalists were not overtly racist, their work revealed unconsciously racist attitudes. The report also accused local media of portraying corruption as an exclusively black issue, of trivializing the deaths of black people, and of treating black journalists and white ones differently.

Some editors feared the inquiry was intended to intimidate the press and that it was carefully timed to discourage critical reporting of the ANC in the run-up to the national elections. One prominent editor described the inquiry as “a kind of racial McCarthyism,” while a local journalist called it “the beginning of the end of press freedom in South Africa.”

In October, the Mbeki government introduced the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Bill, which took aim at racism in all media, including print, radio, television, artworks, and the Internet. The bill prohibited the publication of any matter deemed discriminatory and empowered the justice minister to ensure compliance by issuing guidelines to the media. The bill further prohibited the use of “hurtful and abusive” language, such as “kaffir” and “boer,” and established special “Equality Courts” to combat racial discrimination.

Critics swiftly denounced the proposed bill as a draconian infringement of constitutional free-speech guarantees, maintaining that it would stifle independent reporting and political debate. As a result, the government removed some of the bill’s media provisions. This, according to Paul Setsetse, a Justice Ministry spokesman, “was not due to pressure. . .[but was] rather a signal of the government’s commitment to the promotion and protection of press freedom.”

Other incidents fueled the ongoing debate on racism and state interference in the media. In April, white senior broadcaster Max du Preez was dismissed from the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation after he argued with black managers. In September, three Afrikaans daily newspapers accused Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota of intimidating journalists and undermining press freedom. Referring to articles that he thought portrayed black soldiers in a negative light, Lekota had attacked the newspapers for allegedly publishing false information that was costing people their lives.

Another controversial issue was the police power to force witnesses to crimes to testify under Article 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act. Several South African journalists have been forced to reveal their sources under this statute, as in the horrific 1996 killing of alleged drug baron Rashaad Staggie by members of the vigilante group People against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD). The trial continued into 1999, with various journalists and photographers still refusing to testify. Some suffered threats and harassment as a result, both from the police and from gang members.

In October, anonymous threats to Reuters Television caused the news agency to suspend its TV operations in Cape Town. The threats were believed to have come from PAGAD; they began after it became known that Reuters had video footage of Staggie’s murder.

October 19

The Reuters news agency suspended its television operation in Cape Town after staff members received death threats from anonymous callers over a period of several months. According to some reports, the threats began after it became known that the station possessed video footage of a suspected drug dealer being murdered by a vigilante group called People against Gangsterism and Drugs. The group denied having made any threats.