`South Africa Now,' an Uncensored TV News Show, Wins Fans Worldwide - But Not at Home

QUESTION: What TV news program started out two-and-a-half years ago on a shoestring budget, consistently fights censorship, considers culture as important as news, and has earned financial support from Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, U2, Bonnie Raitt, Little Steven, and Sidney Poitier? Answer: ``South Africa Now,'' an Emmy Award-winning, half-hour news program produced by Globalvision, a New York-based television production company, in association with the Africa Fund. The show, which is committed to offering uncensored news, covers issues in southern Africa from the inside out, using resident writers and reporters.

It is not seen on South African television. Videotapes, though, are available there for those with VCRs, says Diery Prudent, media coordinator for the show.

``Now'' started as a response to the dwindling coverage of South Africa and increasing hostility toward reporters there, says executive producer, Danny Schechter, in a telephone interview. ``The idea was to get a show on the air that demonstrated that the story could be covered despite the censorship,'' says Mr. Schechter, who was a producer for the ABC-TV newsagazine ``20/20'' for eight years. ``We're trying to challenge not only censorship there, but media indifference here.''

``Now'' is seen regularly in many other nations, and is broadcast weekly on 80 PBS stations, and on CNN's World Report, the Vision Network, CBC Newsworld in Canada, NHK in Japan, JBC in Jamaica, ZNS in the Bahamas, CBC in Barbados, Mozambique TV, Zambia TV, and Zimbabwe TV.

South African officials, however, are not fans. Letters show the producers have been denied journalist visas. No reason was given, but another attempt for visas, aided by the United States State Department, may prove successful. ``We're hoping they'll let us do our jobs as journalists,'' Schechter says.

Schechter's attitude is shared by the show's current sponsor, the Rockefeller Foundation. Hugh Price, the foundation's vice-president, says the program's second $100,000 grant was awarded because, although press access is better than before, ``current media coverage of South Africa is episodic and incomplete. It also looks from an American point of view.'' He says that the foundation ``wanted Americans to see events as those who live them see them.''

Opposing the idea that many non-South Africans are indifferent to the problems in South Africa, producer Schechter says, ``When Nelson Mandela showed up, it proved that people really did care about South Africa. After all, it's a very compelling issue of human rights, of racial justice.''

An important component of the show's success, he adds, is that the ``journalists and the crews that are working with us tend to be black crews that live in South Africa. Most American television will be behind the police lines if there's a confrontation. We're on the other side of the lines. We're covering it from within the movement, trying to represent the views of the majority in South Africa, and trying to put them in a context we think is missing in most of the major media coverage.''

Schechter says they have asked for interviews with top political figures, including President De Klerk, but have been refused. ``Their attitude is counterproductive,'' he says, ``because now we're on the air not only on leading public televisions stations all over the US, but in we're on the air in southern Africa. So if the South African government is concerned about media coverage, they should try to influence it [coverage] by being part of it.''

Southern African news programs are also examined on ``Now.'' ``Because we're part of the CNN exchange, we're able get access to South African broadcasting, and we incorporate that in our show to show people in this country what South Africans are seeing in terms of news,'' he says.

``Now'' invests in South Africa by training journalists there, such as co-anchor Fana Kekana and on-air reporter Mweli Mzizi. And the program puts a strong emphasis on its cultural segment - a less-covered aspect of African life.

``Because of censorship and a lack of education, many [African] people express their aspirations through music, dance, drama, and other cultural forms,'' says Schechter. ``We try to give a platform for those people to be heard.''

Although the program has only enough funding to last 13 more production weeks, its impact is earning it new influence.

New York City Mayor David Dinkins recently asked the production team to create ``Unity Now,'' a program promoting racial harmony in the United States.

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