Censorship's squeeze in South Africa

CECIL RHODES's old newspaper lost its crusading editor this month, a casualty of sharpened official attacks on South Africa's press and increasing tension between whites and black Africans. Anthony H. (Tony) Heard, editor of the Cape Times for 16 years, became the latest victim of South Africa's surge of corporate self-censorship. Although the Cape Times, a morning daily in Cape Town and the country's most prestigious and important English-language newspaper after the Johannesburg Star, has long been profitable, Mr. Heard was sacked by his owners, Times Media Ltd.

After Times Media Ltd. killed the Rand Daily Mail of Johannesburg two years ago, the Cape Times was South Africa's most fearless, outspoken, and liberal daily. Its editorials, written by Heard and deputy editor Gerald Shaw, were sharply critical of the government and apartheid. More important, under Heard the Cape Times's coverage of black unrest from 1984 was thorough and evenhanded. To the extent that Draconian South African law permits, Heard's newspaper also exposed alleged injustices, cases of police brutality, and governmental misappropriation.

Because it is the leading English-language newspaper in the seat of South Africa's Parliament, the Cape Times has naturally focused on legislative coverage. Its sharp eye for double-speak and disinformation cannot have pleased South Africa's rulers. Heard was known for his steady, concentrated focus on the foibles and, especially, the arrogance of a one-party-dominated parliament. His was the first South African newspaper to reveal the costs of South Africa's war of counterinsurgency in Namibia and Angola. The Times covered the military and ecological issues well, but also remained a local news outlet of the Cape Province.

The most recent phase of South Africa's bitter conflict between black Africans and whites is close to three years old. The nation's white government rules with the aid of a second, severely restrictive state of emergency. Under it, restrictions on the reporting of violence are extensive, and a Bureau of State Information is the sole arbiter of official news of unrest. Moreover, the state puts the burden of compliance on newspapers, which are compelled under the threat of heavy fines and stoppages to guard their own reporting.

Heard was among a handful of editors who tested these and older bars to press freedom. Last year he was arrested and tried for quoting the statements of Oliver Tambo, exiled leader of the banned African National Congress. The government had quoted Mr. Tambo; Heard decided to do likewise and to highlight the absurdity of a prohibition on quoting words or thought that could circulate through other means. Eventually the government dropped charges against him.

Times Media Ltd., partly owned by the giant Anglo American Corporation, has a stable of provincial morning newspapers: the popular Sunday Times, Johannesburg's morning Business Day, and the weekly Financial Mail.

Historically, it has been the most anti-apartheid of South Africa's four major newspaper publishing chains, and the closest to the opposition Progressive Federal Party of Colin Eglin and Helen Suzman. Yet Raymond Louw and Allister Sparks, two of the crusading editors of the Rand Daily Mail, were discharged, then the Mail was terminated, and now Heard has been dismissed.

Continued pressure from government on the Cape Times proprietors, as well as openly stated threats on the newspapers in general by the minister of the interior, doubtless played a central role in Heard's dismissal.

Although freedom of the press is not yet dead in South Africa, and may never be so long as there are black and white journalists who follow the path that Heard has blazed, the activists of apartheid will now be able to operate with far less fear of disclosure. The government's control of information received a big boost. The cooperation of a supposedly fearless press conglomerate has made official dominance of the news that much more complete.

Robert I. Rotberg is academic vice-president for arts, sciences, and technology at Tufts University.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Censorship's squeeze in South Africa
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today