South African truth panel exposes how apartheid twisted white media Journalists acted as spies, informants, PR men for racist regime

September 18, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In the appropriate setting of a TV studio, the sins of this country's apartheid-era media have been exposed this week to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Editors, producers and journalists of the day have confessed to acting as spies, informers and advisers to the police and other national security organs. They have admitted also to being publicists for the system of racial segregation that was codified for four decades here.

For months the commission has gathered evidence of the assassinations, torture and brutality that underpinned the apartheid era.

Here, for the first time, was the insidious side of apartheid, the government's calculated and persistent use of the media in the psychological and political war, in the words of one former spy, "to win the hearts and minds of the people."

As Craig Kotze, a crime reporter who became a government informer, observed, there could be "no normal journalism in an abnormal society."

Kotze was unapologetic about his own role of bolstering the police image with positive reports, saying that it eventually helped make a peaceful solution possible, foiling the extremists on both right and left.

He accused many of his former colleagues of working undercover for the black liberation movement and challenged them to admit their roles.

Undercover alliances

Scant evidence has been produced of reporters' undercover alliances with "the struggle," but the truth commission has been criticized previously for taking a one-sided view of the apartheid era, unearthing the atrocities of the government forces without putting sufficiently balancing emphasis on the violence of the freedom fighters.

Only a minority of journalists appear to have been directly involved in the psychological campaign on either side, and many honest journalists risked their careers, if not their lives, to print the truth.

But just how aberrant parts of the media profession became during the period is summed up in this testimony from Johan Pretorius, former editor in chief of television news for the South African Broadcasting Corp.:

"Did the SABC and its journalists contribute to human rights violations? Yes.

"Did the SABC help keep the policy of apartheid going? Yes. But you must judge this in the historical context. There was never any conscious intent to abuse human rights."

Certainly, there was a conscious intent within the SABC to make sure that news programs and documentaries toed the government line. Any "sensitive" material spotted by editors and producers was referred higher up the editorial chain for approval or deletion.

"There was a rule within the corporation which said programs of a sensitive nature had to be viewed by the head of TV," said Don Briscoe, who joined SABC to set up the English language service in the 1970s.

No interracial handshake

The silver-haired former public relations executive recalled being ordered to cut the handshake between a black and a white out of a documentary, to delete an interview with a black journalist from an Afrikaner program, and to cancel a program on black education "which threw light on all the evils in the system."

On one occasion, Briscoe said, he was told to cut a comment about the black consciousness movement out of a documentary about a hospital in the township of Soweto. He passed the order onto the producer, but when the program was aired the comment was still there.

"While it was running I received a phone call at home saying, 'What the hell is going on? That should have been cut.' " The next day the producer was fired.

Briscoe said that on one occasion he was called, with other heads of SABC departments, to a meeting in the underground military headquarters in Pretoria to be briefed on the Communist plan to seize power in Angola, Zambia and Mozambique and then unleash "the final onslaught" against South Africa.

Impressed by the personal underground briefing by the commanders, he decided to produce two films on South African military readiness, reassuring the public that the country would be well defended against the Communist threat.

He did not, he acknowledged under questioning, point out that rather than "faceless Communists" many of those fighting on the borders of the country were black South Africans seeking equality and democracy.

Alex Boraine, deputy chairman of the commission, compared Briscoe's films to the documentaries on Nazi Germany produced by Leni Riefenstahl for Adolph Hitler.

The expose of the media's constant malleability and frequent mendacity over recent decades, coincides with a debate over the current and future role of the press in a country living through the historic transformation from minority white to majority black rule.

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