Attacks on the Press 2000: South Africa

A LONG-AWAITED REPORT ON MEDIA AND RACISM IN POST-APARTHEID South Africa was issued in August, to the relief of many who had feared it might erode constitutional protections for press freedom.

Titled Faultlines, the report of the quasi-independent South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) was the end result of an investigation announced in late 1998, at the end of former president Nelson Mandela’s tenure, in response to complaints from black professional groups. While the report concluded that the South African media was a “racist institution,” it stopped short of recommending new laws to regulate independent media. Instead, the report suggested better training for journalists, so-called racism-awareness sessions, and more diversity in media ownership.

The HRC hearings did exacerbate tensions between the white-dominated mainstream print media and the government. At the same time, government officials grew increasingly reluctant to release information to the public or the press.

In February, the HRC subpoenaed some 49 journalists to testify, provoking a storm of protest within the South African press. After the subpoenas were withdrawn, however, numerous journalists of all races testified voluntarily.

The final report was much less controversial. The National Editors’ Forum praised it for softening the HRC’s adversarial pre-inquiry position, while the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) found the report to be “a genuine attempt to balance freedom of expression with the rights to equality and dignity.”

In its submission to the HRC in early April, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) accused the country’s mainstream private media of practicing “unashamedly racist journalism” by portraying black leaders as corrupt, anti-democratic, dictatorial, and contemptuous of the population. The Communist Party, meanwhile, described the media as a “racial oligarchy” serving the interest of wealthy whites.

Critics, including the influential opposition Democratic Party, lashed out at the ANC, accusing it of using the HRC as a platform for its own agenda. During the hearings, Public Enterprises Minister Jeff Radebe, a senior ANC leader, accused The Mail & Guardian editor Phillip van Niekerk of writing an allegedly racist opinion piece on Thabo Mbeki, which was published under the byline of Lizeka Mda, associate editor of The Star, some two years before Mbeki became president.

Both van Niekerk and Mda, who maintained that she had written the piece, sued Radebe and the ANC for defamation after the party refused to issue an apology. The case, unprecedented in South Africa in that the plaintiffs were seeking only a retraction from the ANC, was still pending at year’s end.

South Africa’s AIDS epidemic provoked considerable tension between the government and the media after President Mbeki publicly disputed the orthodox scientific view that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus. The Johannesburg-based Radio 702 stepped into the center of this controversy in September, when its star presenter, John Robbie, told Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to “go away,” addressing the minister by her first name, after she refused to answer a question on whether she believed that HIV caused AIDS. Furious ANC officials unsuccessfully called for Robbie’s resignation (the journalist later apologized for his behavior).

Mbeki’s government came under heavy criticism in late August, when the Defense Ministry reportedly attempted to restrict contact with the media on the ground that its press office needed restructuring. A similar news blackout had been imposed weeks earlier by the Health Ministry’s investigative unit, which announced that it would not release data about crime victims until such time as it had established “a workmanlike media policy.” The decision caused an outcry among the local press, which has devoted much attention to South Africa’s surging crime rates.

Ironically, this trend toward secrecy followed the January passage of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, meant to implement the Constitution’s guarantees of transparent government.

Also in August, Defense Intelligence, the country’s main intelligence agency, made national and international headlines by seeking to recruit local journalists with a view to “acquiring oral and written analyses of current events.” In return, the government agency undertook to provide journalists with story leads as well as “improved access to the intelligence community.” At year’s end, it was unclear whether any South African journalists had responded to the agency’s recruiting drive.

Chuene Hamese, African Eye News Service
Sylvester Lukhele, African Eye News Service

Hamese and Lukhele, reporters with African Eye News Service (AENS), an independent agency based in the town of Nelspruit, Mpumalanga Province, were harassed by security guards while trying to cover a planned June 30 labor demonstration at the offices of the Mpumalanga Provincial Finance Department.

On June 30, Hamese and Lukhele went to the department’s offices in Nelspruit and presented themselves to reception at the controlled-access lobby. After identifying themselves as journalists and showing security guards the contents of their camera bags, the two were escorted to a staff meeting room where the workers had gathered.

When the reporters began interviewing workers and taking pictures of the crowd, they were confronted by senior managers. Departmental head Zakes Dube insisted that reporters were not allowed on the premises, but invited them to discuss the issues and ask questions in his office.

When they entered the office, however, Dube ordered security guards to arrest the journalists and confiscate their equipment.

Lukhele managed to force his way out of the office and return to the AENS office, where he reported the incident. Several hours later Hamese was released and the confiscated equipment returned.

AENS filed a press freedom complaint with the Public Protector and the Human Rights Commission. Seeking to avoid legal action, senior executives at the Finance Department agreed to meet with AENS staff to resolve the dispute directly.

The two parties settled the matter amicably, releasing a joint statment regarding press freedom and access to information.

However, about a month and a half later, AENS filed several new complaints with the Human Rights Commission, alleging that the Finance Department had concealed budget data and documents on allegations of official corruption. At year’s end, the Human Rights Commission was still investigating these complaints.