South Africa's threatened press

A person can now disappear without trace in South Africa. In June the white minority government utilized a section of the Police Act for the first time to prevent newspapers from reporting the detention without trial of three black journalists. Under South Africa's security law, individuals can be held indefinitely, without trial, without access to lawyers or family members. Publication in newspapers of the names of those taken away by police in the middle of the night has been the only way of alerting the public to the detention of political dissidents. That little light is now threatened with extinction.

The South African regime has long claimed a tradition of freedom of the press. Indeed, in a perverse way this claim has been used to soften criticism of the racist apartheid system internationally because, it is argued, things cannot be too bad if a free press exists.

Yet South Africa has 100 laws regulating the press. In the past five years, four black newspapers, the World, Weekend World, Post, and Sunday Post, have been closed down, and leading black journalists have been banned. Banning is a way of silencing an individual and prohibits, among other things, the banned person from writing or speaking in public or even entering a building where any publishing is done. Even foreign journalists have been denied permits to enter black residential areas to report on the increasing resistance against the government.

Among the laws aimed at the press is the Inquest Act that makes it a crime for a newspaper to report the death of a person in police custody without the ''express written consent of the Minister of Justice.'' This act was passed after Steve Biko, the prominent black leader, was killed by police in jail in 1977. The publicity surrounding Mr. Biko's death was the most damaging blow to South Africa's image that the regime had suffered in a long time.

In February, Neil Aggett, a medical doctor who also served as provincial secretary of the Food and Canning Workers, a black trade union, became the first white person to die in detention.

Because of the Inquest Act, the government was able to suppress the details surrounding Dr. Aggett's death. All that is publicly known is what has been disclosed at the inquest hearings. This contrasts sharply with the storm of publicity that immediately followed Biko's death. Then Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger joked to the government Nationalist Party Congress that Biko used his ''democratic right to die by going on a hunger strike.'' Newspapers reported the remark and the fact that the autopsy report showed that Biko died from a fractured skull and ribs. The Minister of Justice was forced to resign.

In June 1980 the government appointed Judge Marthinus Steyn to head a Commission of Inquiry into the media. After 20 months, the Steyn Commission produced a 1,400-page report that revealed more about the government and the type of minds working for it than it did about the press. The report was divided in several sections which were actually headed ''The Threat of Stupid and Selfish Attitudes,'' ''The Dangers of Indecision, Inaction and Back-tracking,'' and ''Pariah-making as a Lunacy Generator.'' Judge Steyn wrote that the government needed to ensure that everybody, including the opposition, press, and private enterprise should tell the same story to the world. He also recommended that ''a dirty tricks government department is needed for the formulation of a proper information and communications policy.''

Consistent with this position, the commission stated that the Sowetan, the largest newspaper for blacks in the country, and Die Afrikaner, an Afrikaner extremist right-wing publication, both had ''no place in journalism.'' Presumably, the Sowetan is unacceptable because it chronicles black resistance in the country while Die Afrikaner embarrasses the government by its honesty in openly advocating racism.

Among the latest extensions of press censorship are the prohibitions contained in the National Key Points Act. ''Key points'' include industrial plants and installations vital to the security of the minority government. The act forbids newspapers from reporting on any incident at an installation or company protected under this act without the ''express written consent of the Minister of Justice.'' The law was passed after a major South African liberation movement, the African National Congress, bombed SASOL, a synthetic fuel plant, causing damage estimated at $8 million. Many United States companies have been declared key point industries. Under this legislation, if General Motors burned to the ground newspapers could not write about it unless the Minister of Justice gave his written permission.

And South Africa still claims a free press!

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