Cheryl Renée Gooch
Although President Nelson Mandela has proclaimed that 'press freedom is not under threat in South Africa and will never be so long as the ANC (African National Congress) is the majority party,'1 he recently accused some senior Black journalists of trying to undermine the new government. These journalists, many of whom have demonstrated commitment to the liberation struggle, argue that their criticisms of the government's slow progress are not conspiratorial, but rather well founded and in the public interest. While Mandela and journalists have appeared to reconcile some of these differences, his criticisms raise pertinent questions about press and government relations, the changing role of Black journalists, and the future role of the press in South Africa's transformation.
Some senior Black editors’ recent assertions that South Africa's new government has failed to deliver triggered a strong reaction from President Nelson Mandela, who publicly accused them of having hidden agendas designed to undermine transformation efforts. He said: 'They seem to regret that we destroyed white supremacy, and are very hostile to us' (Bateman, 1996).
Mandela’s scathing remarks prompted equally strong reactions from political writer Kaizer Nyatsumba who said:
The truth, at last, is out, and it is frightening: our saintly emperor has no clothes on! He is extremely sensitive to criticism, especially if it happens to come from Black journalists. He and many of his colleagues both in the ANC and the government tend to expect Black journalists to turn a blind eye to mistakes they make, while volubly singing their praises ('Even St. Mandela,' 1996)
Black journalists continue to see themselves as activists in the post-apartheid period, but also as critical, vigilant agents of social change. Mandela’s criticisms raise pertinent questions about the issue of press freedom and the role of the journalist- and in this case that of Black journalists in South Africa's transformation. The apparent contradiction of criticizing journalists who have been supporters of the struggle is captured in Jon Qwelane's commentary on the reality of the post-apartheid separation of activism and journalism. He wrote:
The problem is one of identity: the ruling party, as government, may still be finding it difficult to separate the role black journalists played so admirably during the struggle for liberation, from the role they now are or ought to be playing in a democratic, post-apartheid South Africa. During the struggle, as journalists we campaigned most vigorously against the inhumanity and injustices of apartheid and racism, and this we did alongside the liberation movements. In the literal and figurative sense, we occupied the same trenches and aimed for the common enemy, injustice, degradation, deprivation, oppression, and exploitation on grounds of colour and race.
Indeed, even today, and on a daily basis, the campaign for justice and human dignity continues to be waged across the globe by serious newspapers and by decent men and women... Had Mandela and his party fully grasped the reality of the post-apartheid separation of roles, they would perhaps not have interpreted our robust criticism of their shortcomings as a sign of treachery, collusion with enemies of democracy, a pining for the return of apartheid and evidence of sinister hidden agendas ('Politicians Lash Out,' 1996).
The context of this exchange is important in that while recommitting himself to upholding press freedom, Mandela insists that relations between the government and the press will not normalize until there is a change in media ownership. 'As long as the press continues to be controlled by conservative whites,' he says, 'we will continue to have a problem of senior Black journalists expressing views which are not in conflict with those of their employers' (Makhanya, 1996).
While these remarks cast suspicion on some Black journalists and possibly open them up to intimidation,2 they also highlight complex circumstances that affect press/government relations. A representative, state appointed committee examining government communication has acknowledged the uneasy relationship between the press and the government, noting the continuing need for a diversity of ownership and control of the print media so as to reflect the demographics of South African society ('Comtask,' 1996).
This robust, public dialogue is a healthy sign for the country, whose leadership has committed itself to ‘governmental transparency’. While most of the restrictive press laws have been repealed, new-found press freedoms should be viewed in the light of recent history whereby media were subject to repression, censorship, surveillance and discrediting, often at the hands of the state.3 African press research documenting new governments' discomfiture with critical journalism, particularly during periods of social change (Faringer, 1991; Hachten, 1993), holds that government, with its desire to keep itself afloat, may see the transformation process as a justification for demanding loyalty from the press and even assume a prescriptive role in its dealings with the press.
Yet, it is errant, however, to equate the behaviour towards the media of the democratically elected ANC government, which is constitutionally committed to free expression, to the former apartheid regime that restricted the media through numerous laws. The government’s commitment to free expression and universal human rights has brought changes in favour of a freer press and prompted efforts for transparent dialogue among diverse sectors of society. These developments coincide with press freedom research examining how essential a vigilant, independent press is to democracy in Africa (Ansah, 1991; Ronning, 1994; Kasoma, 1995). Such perspectives form the epicentre of South African press's efforts to redefine its philosophy of professional journalism, which includes striking a balance between watchdog and emancipatory roles, and improving press-government relations.
Cultivating transparent dialogue
While noting that mutual criticisms of the government and the press can be substantiated and have merit, the Comtask committee says 'there is scope for both sides to listen to the other’s critiques, and for there to be some joint efforts to improve respective standards' (1996, p. 2). One manifestation of this dialogic phase in South Africa is the formation of SANEF (South African National Editors Forum), which essentially brings Black and white journalists together. Members of the Black Editors Forum (BEF) and the largely white Conference of Editors (COE) have resolved to iron out their differences, address past injustices, and promote media freedom.
SANEF and President Mandela have agreed to hold periodic summits to discuss issues causing tensions between them and the role of the press in the transformation process. Central to SANEF’s mission is its recently adopted charter of editorial independence, which the government, political parties and media owners are being asked to endorse. Circumstances that have precipitated the need for this charter include pressures from government, media owners and mobs. Provisions of a number of specific statutes currently in force have an impact on freedom of expression in general and freedom of the press in particular. Perhaps, the greatest threat to press freedom is section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act, also known as the ‘reveal your sources’ law. It requires persons who have information about crimes to disclose it to police, or face imprisonment ('Freedom of Expression Institute,' 1995).
SANEF's Media Freedom and Editorial Charter (1997), which includes a code of ethics, reflects the growing consensus among South African media scholars, journalists and legislators that media policy should emphasize balanced press and governmental accountability, respect for human rights, and equitable participation of diverse social groups in public dialogue (Louw, 1993; Tomaselli & Louw, 1996), and sets the parameters for the country's emerging press philosophy.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) inquiry into the role of media during the apartheid era is another example of open dialogue designed to support the country's reconstructive effort. The TRC examination of how media suppressed information about human rights abuses and the treatment of staff by media organizations and the state, has prompted public discussion of, as well as debate within media about, these issues. At the same time, it has revived the philosophical debate about press ethics and editorial freedom. 'It is vitally important that media is seen to be having its own catharsis about the past in the public,' says editor John Battersby, who has publicly apologized to his ‘Black brothers and sisters’ for having been part of a system which denied their human rights. 'If South Africa is going to build a truly just and democratic society, then the whole society has to go through the change of heart' (personal communication, 12 March 1997).
Details about informants who operated in newsrooms, how media were interconnected with government, the harassment of journalists, and how media contributed to environments, both within and outside of their newsrooms, where human rights abuses occurred are contained in reports submitted to the TRC by major media groups. A study by Independent Newspapers (formerly Argus company), the country’s major English-language press group, delineates findings in two general areas: (1) where the company failed in the human rights field, and (2) how the company and its staff were victims of human rights abuses under apartheid.
While acknowledging that the group’s newspapers followed some discriminatory (and often insensitive) editorial practices in reporting on the anti-apartheid movement, the study says that restrictive laws and regulations3 that impeded the watchdog role of Argus papers were largely responsible for the group’s limited role in exposing abuses ('Independent Newspapers,' 1997). Several former English-newspaper editors have distanced themselves from the Independent report, asserting that their collective role as a strong and visible opponent against apartheid requires no apology or further defence (O’Malley, et al, 1997).
However, Black journalists who worked under the same circumstances (and often these editors) say the editors' stance falls short of explaining the different views of realities and distortion of facts in media coverage during the apartheid era (Williams, 1997; Rohan, 1997; 'Forum of Black Journalists,' 1997). Such conflicting views of 'truths' reflect the need for ongoing dialogue between and among media, the public and government to redress issues of press and governmental credibility and accountability.
The Freedom of Expression Institute concludes in its multi-part report that agreements between the Newspaper Press Union and police and military establishments led to collusion between media management and the apartheid-era government and has urged the TRC to subpoena leaders of these media establishments to question them about their role in maintaining apartheid (1997). In spite of these atrocities, there is an inclination for some to describe the South African press, prior to the first democratic election in 1994, as relatively free. Prior to the election, the majority of South Africa's population was not free. Nor was press freedom extended to everyone. 'We tried to be normal in an abnormal society,' say Bussiek & Bussiek (1997, p. 2) in their comprehensive analysis of the management and editorial policies of newspapers during this period, echoing the need to recreate press freedom the way democracy was created.
The press and national unity
Media scholarship reflecting indigenous views of African societies, offers frameworks to examine the contextual realities in which African media function, while acknowledging the centrality of endogenous values and development needs to media policy (Gooch, 1995). These are critical considerations for South African press philosophy, as is the continued exploration of the relationship between activism, journalism and development (Shah, 1996). Some envisage the South African press functioning under a hybrid model largely influenced by tenets of the social responsibility approach with a developmental emphasis (De Beer, 1989; Jackson, 1993). 'We need journalists to strengthen democracy, constructive foot-soldiers who will be good custodians of transformation,' says editor Gabu Tugwana (1996, p. 32).
An important fusion of these perspectives is captured in Kasoma's Afriethics model, which revisits the 'indigenized philosophy of communication' argument, and advocates the use of a communal (or participatory) approach in solving moral problems in journalism (1996). Supportive of exploring built-in cultural attributes and precedents of African societies to define the journalism profession, Afriethics may be useful to progressive-minded South African journalists re-examining their ethical and professional responsibility.
In choosing as it's slogan 'National Unity', the South African government has embraced an indigenous value, umbuntu, a Zulu word which means humanism or humanness. Hence, in an age where government is no longer the enemy, and journalists are no longer fugitives, both the press and government must seek to gain the widespread trust of the formerly disenfranchised majority and respond to the needs of this diverse society, without replicating the tradition of authoritarianism and racial polarization. This includes understanding the importance of mutual criticism between the press and the government in a new democracy.
1. Speech delivered to the Foreign Correspondents Association, November 19, 1996, Johannesburg.
2. Some journalists, for various political and social reasons, and at different periods in South Africa’s contemporary history, have encountered intimidation and suspicion. Publications documenting these experiences include the South African Institute of Race Relation's Mau-mauing the media: The new censorship for the new South Africa and Actions against journalists in South Africa between 1960 and 1994 by J. Nix.
3. These laws are delineated in Stuart’s The newspaperman’s guide to the law and in the Martin and Moorhead (1997) report examining legislation that restricted the press.
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- Williams, M. (1997, March 9). Editors’ rejection of newspapers’ apology shows a lack of contrition. Sunday Independent, p. 11.
Cheryl Renée Gooch (PhD) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Media at Rutgers University, USA. She is a recipient of grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Rutgers Research Council to study press issues in South Africa. Professor Gooch is a former journalist.