Mar 1 1988

South Africa: Where Did the Story Go?


Children in a "resettlement" village in apartheid South Africa. (cc photo: UN)

Children in a “resettlement” village in apartheid South Africa. (cc photo: UN)

Where has the apartheid story gone? Is it being covered less because less is happening? Has the international press packed up and moved on? Or has South Africa’s press ban been so successful that coverage has been effectively curtailed?

While editors of prominent American newspapers defend their coverage as adequate, TV journalists are somewhat unhappy because of their need for visual images and their problems getting the stories they file on the air. But South Africans opposed to apartheid and activists who support them in this country are far more dissatisfied, arguing that the US media have been essentially complicit in Pretoria’s press restrictions.

One conclusion is undebatable: There has been less coverage of South Africa overall, especially since the various press bans went into effect starting in late 1985. During a period of labor unrest in August 1987 (which included the strike in the gold mines), there were 102 citations of stories on South Africa in the TV News Index and Abstracts—compared to several hundred in August 1985, also a time of intense unrest. A newspaper survey tells the same story.

There is no doubt that media coverage of the violence had fueled protests overseas, including calls for disinvestment and sanctions. Media attention helped turn the battle inside South Africa into a global cause, one which was forcing Pretoria to consider reforms, however modest. Predictably, the South African government’s response was to clamp down on coverage, so as to drive “the pictures,” particularly vivid white-cops-beating-black-kids pictures, off the air.

South Africa’s emergency regulations have had a significant effect in limiting coverage of the unrest, especially those dramatic confrontations between the army and the community in various townships. “Has the censorship been effective? Sure it has. Is that even a question?” said Mark Kusnetz, foreign news producer for NBC Nightly News.

Pretoria’s press regulations appear calculated to keep the media off balance: They are deliberately vague, so as to impose caution and restraint. “The press clampdown has had some success,” acknowledged New York Times foreign editor Joseph Lelyveld. “But there is no formal censorship system. I don’t think we have ever submitted a line of copy. It’s a system of self-censorship…. Some use the government’s pressure of close scrutiny as an excuse for not doing a hell of a lot.”

Former CBS News producer Richard Cohen adds: “They’ve kept us from covering the story because of the fear that by breaking the rules, we’ll get tossed out.” Cohen wrote a New York Times op-ed (8/31/87) asking the networks to consider pulling out of South Africa. “We play an insidious game of video appeasement with the government,” he stated. “Walk up to the line. Don’t cross it. Show as much as you think you can get away with, never more.”

His pull-out proposal, however, was not a popular one among journalists who generally believe that some coverage is better than none, and that to leave would be to do voluntarily what the South African authorities want. But Cohen contends that “the story is not being seen. By staying there, the public thinks we are covering the story—but we’re not. That’s the dirty little secret that journalists don’t want to discuss.”

There is a clear link between air time allotted a story and the level of public interest—remove the former and you reduce the latter. When viewers don’t see the story, legislators and policymakers don’t hear about the issue. According to the Washington Report on Africa, dwindling news coverage has dimmed the prospects of tougher sanctions legislation. “Congressional aides on both sides of the issue agree that curtailed press coverage from South Africa has already been an important, if not decisive, factor in this year’s debate,” the newsletter reports.

Former ABC correspondent Ken Walker told a Nieman Foundation conference on South Africa and news censorship last April that the US media are guilty of a failure of will and a failure of nerve. Walker said that Nightline’s celebrated 1985 programs from South Africa followed years of lobbying by black employees and the growth of the Free South Africa Movement. He said Pretoria only granted Nightline visas after CBS 60 Minutes carried a Morley Safer report considered flattering by the government there. It expected a repeat performance.

Walker believes that the news media don’t care about the South Africa story. He cites the absence of regular black network correspondents in the field—none have been assigned to South Africa—as another sign of an unwillingness to challenge the system.

A South African journalist (who asked to remain anonymous) said a reporter’s political openness is as important as racial sensitivity. “South Africa is viewed as one of us, as a Western democracy, and the correspondents operate as if it was one,” he stated. “Western reporters cover South Africa from the point of view of the people who run it, not from the point of view of those who suffer it.”

Can hard-hitting journalists cover South Africa? Brian Ellis, who produced the outspoken CBS documentary, Children of Apartheid, with Walter Cronkite, says it is difficult to work there “but not impossible.” (The documentary was reportedly delayed for six months because of a South African government complaint. The script was modified to avoid provoking a confrontation.)

For one of the children interviewed, the CBS exposure may have triggered a confrontation, a fatal one. Eighteen-year-old Godfrey Dhlomo’s story of being tortured while in police detention was featured in the report. On January 24, Dhlomo was found shot to death shortly after being questioned by police. His funeral was described in the New York Times (2/7/88) as “one of the most emotional and politically charged events” in Soweto since June 1986. Yet it was played down and treated with only five paragraphs on page 6 of the Sunday paper. Twice as much space on the same page was given to a story criticizing Romania’s human rights record.

Anti-apartheid demonstrators marched outside CBS on the day of the young man’s funeral protesting the lack of coverage and demanding a public statement by CBS itself. They called on CBS and the rest of the networks to do more about the issue. Only CBS’s local station in NYC covered the protest. The print media did not.

After Dhlomo’s death, the Jobannesburg Star (2/9/88) carried a report listing more than 20 incidents of similar unexplained deaths of militant black youths. “Yet none of them were reported in the States,” says Jim Cason of the Africa Fund. “Surely the media here can’t claim that the information isn’t available. Despite all the media restrictions, South Africans can read about it. It’s only Americans who are being kept in the dark. Why?”

Part of the reason one hears over and over again is that if American journalists challenge the government’s press regulations, they will be tossed out. Ken Walker links the lack of video footage available to TV news to the threat of expulsion. Yet he asserts that the same fear is not present in Eastern Bloc countries where government restrictions are routinely challenged, and where expulsion is often a badge of honor. Richard Cohen seconds this point: “We smuggle pictures out of the wilderness of Afghanistan. We could do the same in South Africa.”

Anti-apartheid activists question news organizations which cite a lack of video footage as reason for reduced coverage, pointing out that there are well-known alternative sources of video inside South Africa—footage shot by independent crews whose work is distributed by such agencies as Afravision, which covers demonstrations, union meetings, and other dissident activity. Afravision’s London-based distributors indicate that they generally have a hard time selling footage to the US networks.

These alternative media outlets also define “the story” somewhat more broadly than most US journalists. They see it in regional
terms, as a southern African story, not just a South Africa one. By contrast, coverage of the frontline states in the mainstream media has been sporadic at best. Stories on Angola often are skewed by a cold war frame. For example, a Washington Post dispatch (1/27/88) by William Claiborne from Johannesburg reported a claim by UNITA of a key victory inside southern Angola. The source was a UNITA representative in Washington, whose statements made up the first 10 paragraphs of the story. In paragraph 7 we are told that the Pentagon could not confirm the story. The South African presence in Angola only surfaced in paragraph 12—as a claim by the Angolan government which the South Africans, a paragraph later, would not respond to. A day later, Reuters in Luanda cited Angolan military sources saying the town in question had not been overrun.

A tendency to take UNITA claims at face value is only part of the problem. The same US news organizations which continually seek out refuseniks and their samizdat publications in the Soviet orbit seem to steer clear of South Africa’s alternative press—newspapers such as The Sowetan, New Nation or Weekly Mail, which have a reputation for being the best informed about the state of the liberation movements, the people in detention, and the suffering in the black community. “There is not consistent day-to-day contact with the alternative press,” admits Martha Teichner, the CBS correspondent in South Africa. Washington Post foreign editor Michael Getler adds: “I don’t see the alternative press.”

South Africa’s alternative media report regularly on its government’s destabilization policy in the frontline states—they see it as a dominant issue—yet recent news reports on NBC and in the New York Times and Washington Post minimize the South African role. Mozambique has not received the play it deserves, and Namibia is all but ignored except when the South African military runs its annual press tour, prompting a flurry of predictable articles. When 4,000 Namibian miners went on strike last year, the story received scant attention. Yet inside Windhoek, The Namibian, a professionally edited weekly, had all the details available.

American newspapers can’t use a lack of video footage as an excuse. In fact, they make no excuses and reveal little self- criticism. Michael Getler of the Washington Post says his newspaper has been able to report everything of significance in South Africa. Nothing major was missed, he claims.

Joe Lelyveld of the Times, who was ousted from South Africa in 1966 but returned for a second stint a decade later, is disappointed because his newspaper has not been able to assign a full-time correspondent of its choice. Instead, the paper has hired a white South African journalist, John Battersby, who may not, Lelyveld concedes, have the proper distance to he a Times correspondent. “It’s awfully tough to be a foreign correspondent in your own country,” he says. “It’s hard to see the stories as your audience needs to see them.” Battersby’s articles no longer include any reference to continuing government regulations limiting press coverage. That practice seems to have been dropped by the Times and other US newspapers.

At the time the regulations were imposed, there was a lot of talk about news organizations sustaining a commitment to South Africa reporting. Peter Jennings denounced South Africa’s news policy on the air. Writing in the New York Times (12/10/85), Anthony Lewis, who has probably done more than any single US journalist to keep the information flowing, predicted the press ban would fail: “This is a test for American journalism, but also for the public. It will influence future editorial judgment if the results show that people aren’t interested unless they see shocking pictures.”

Have we passed or failed the test? In this election year, when even candidate Jesse Jackson doesn’t list South Africa in a mass mailing as one of his principal issues, apartheid seems to “have gone away,” to use a TV term about stories assignment editors are hot on one minute and cool the next. Meanwhile black editors like Zwelakhe Sisulu of the recently banned New Nation rot in South African jails. How many Americans even know his name?

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Editor’s note: On March 15-16, the House Subcommittee on Africa held hearings on South African press restrictions. The hearings, televised by C-SPAN, were not covered by the major networks or the national newspapers.

Research by Andre Astrow and Daphne Topouzis. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Africa Report.

Canada Criticizes Press Sanctions

The Canadian government recently issued a report on the impact of South African censorship and information management. The report noted “the dissemination of large volumes of printed material whose aim is to misinform and confuse,” while deflecting attention “from the real issues of human rights to peripheral issues such as the East/West confrontation in Southern Africa.”

“Pretoria’s efforts outside South Africa are not designed to convince western audiences that apartheid is a good idea,” the report says. “Instead the approach is to confuse the public [and] media on the effect of sanctions, how important South Africa is to the strategic balance, who is really hurt by sanctions, the affiliations of groups such as the ANC.” Conclusion: South Africa has effectively diffused “a trend of increased public awareness of, interest in, and hostility toward both its racial policy and the methods used for enforcing it.” —D.S.