A photograph in Johannesburg's Star daily seemed ordinary enough: two black birds sitting on a garbage dumpster. Instead, it sparked a firestorm last year when the nation's Human Rights Commission issued a touchy report condemning the image as racist. The picture, they said, depicted black South Africans as provoking urban decay.
Many newspaper editors quickly dismissed the allegations as "a load of psycho-babble." They said the watchdog group charged with investigating media racism had undermined its credibility by proposing such far-flung theories.
The commission, however, had little patience for what it viewed as a defensive reflex by the white-dominated media. Last month, it promptly issued subpoenas to 36 media bosses -of all colors -to appear before an investigative panel. Although the subpoenas were rescinded amid cries that press freedom was under attack, five black editors testified in the hearings, which ended Friday.
Six years after apartheid's demise, there are still few points of accord on how to remedy this aspect of racial privilege. By the end of the inquiry, however, many agreed that this intense session of soul searching had been unexpectedly beneficial. Not only did it show that subtle forms of racism regularly creep into the nation's media, it propelled journalists to confront racism and consider solutions.
"We cannot be satisfied," Nelson Mandela told reporters last year, "with a media which is dominated by one population group ... which has controlled things for three centuries."
Heeding such calls, the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) was formed after the inquiry. The powerful collection of the nation's newspaper bosses agreed to organize a national seminar that will examine codes of conduct and produce a handbook with guidelines for reporting on race issues.
"It is important that SANEF meets immediately to sort out the issue of racism, no matter how painful or traumatic it may be," the group's chairman, Lakela Kaunda, said Friday.
The statement was welcomed by the country's Human Rights Commission, which has noted that 76 percent of the country's media managers are white.
But the commission's aggressiveness riled journalists like Philip Van Niekerk, editor of the respected Mail and Guardian newspaper.
"This is a witch hunt," he says. "We have a new, democratic South Africa now, but the Human Rights Commission is using the same jack-boot tactics to deal with the press as the old government did."
With press freedoms only recently entrenched in the country's Constitution, white editors uniformly condemned the tactics of the commission in issuing subpoenas that threatened jail terms for failure to appear at the hearings.
Ironically, Mr. Van Niekerk had been considered part of the white liberal press that fought against apartheid. His paper was closed temporarily in 1988 because the ruling regime did not like the favorable light it cast on black-liberation fighters.
Now he and editors of the same ilk say they are under attack for questioning the new black government.
The ruling African National Congress has made no secret of its view that the media is "hostile." The party issued an annual report last month that noted the nation's media are still "primarily owned and controlled by antagonistic forces with minority interests."
In an effort to voice the concerns of those silent for so long, five black editors -who head up the handful of papers aimed at black audiences -spoke out at last week's hearings. They stunned their white colleagues by breaking ranks and issuing a joint submission saying the white-dominated press does not speak for them.
Some members of the white media suspect the racism investigation is an attempt to stifle dissent against the government. Van Niekerk's paper was cited for writing 14 stories about corruption among black officials, while penning just four such stories about whites.
Bosses at the white-controlled papers argued that reporting on issues of race cannot be equated to racism.
"From here on in, I am going to have to worry about every headline, wondering if I will get in trouble," says Tim DuPlessis, editor of the Citizen newspaper.
The black editors argued that whites control the media, and their views predominate "by sheer force of numbers." They said that only an African who has suffered "the hurt and indignity of the past" can understand the subtle forms of racism that linger in newsprint.
They noted that most experts quoted in the media are white males. Blacks, they argued, are portrayed as incompetent because news of their appointments [in business or politics] is accompanied by "reservations about their abilities."
They supported sections of the commission's report that pointed out black people were frequently photographed at funerals -while such invasion of white people's privacy is "exceptionally rare."
Despite the divisions, the human rights probe has clearly pushed white media managers to consider such criticisms seriously for the first time.
Every editor agreed that racial stereotyping continues to surface. "We mirror a very racist society," Star editor Peter Sullivan told the press. "If there was no racism in the media, it would be absolutely astounding."
Arrie Rossouw, editor of the Afrikaans-language Beeld newspaper, said the inquiry alone will "make me more sensitive."
No one argued with Van Niekerk when he said that the "real evil" underlying the media's current predicament is an apartheid education system that resulted in a shortage of skilled black journalists. He told the commission he looks forward to the day when that gap will be filled by young students now emerging from liberated schools.
"I do not long for black journalists to satisfy government audit," he said. "I seek them because they know our readers, like no one born to the luxurious bedrooms of the northern suburbs.
"They are therefore of crucial importance for the survival of my newspaper."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society