The Media under the Microscope

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Somewhere amid the detritus of apartheid, gathering dust in the back room of a government building, is a 4,000-page Press Commission Report that took 13 years to prepare and just a few weeks to die. The 1964 Commission examined foreign press coverage word by word and concluded that 67.25% of news reporting on South Africa was "very bad"--meaning hostile to the apartheid regime--and recommended statutory control of the obviously wayward press. The Press Commission and its report were considered a joke, and the local and foreign press continued--often under considerable restriction--to inform readers about the evils of apartheid. Ultimately it was the courage of journalists and editors of papers such as the Cape Times and the now defunct Rand Daily Mail that helped build pressure to end apartheid.

Now a new report by the post-apartheid government's Human Rights Commission condemning racism in the South African media has elicited some rueful headshaking among journalists who remember the bad old days. Though only 250 pages long, the H.R.C.'s foray into the Fourth Estate has received almost the same reception as did the apartheid government's Quixotic venture.

The H.R.C. inquiry was prompted by a complaint from the South African Black Lawyers' Association and the Association of Black Accountants that accused two national weekly newspapers of racial bias in "trivializing" violence in the black community while concentrating on allegations of corruption against black professionals, politicians and civil servants. The H.R.C. responded by commissioning a six-week media survey during July and August last year by an independent researcher and the non-governmental Media Monitoring Project. The study concluded that racial stereotyping is still widespread in the South African media and that former apartheid white supremacist "agents" continue to shape public opinion.

Reaction from the media was swift and scathing. Editorial descriptions of the report ranged from "psychobabble" to "an aberration." The national, black-owned and edited Sunday Times, one of the newspapers named in the original complaint, said, "The document is a staggeringly inept hodge-podge of confused thinking, pseudo science, half-truths, distortions of fact and, in some instances, wholesale departures from reality."

Most criticism was leveled at the work of researcher Claudia Braude, a white freelance writer with a degree in comparative literature whose analysis made up the heart of the report. Journalists have made much of Braude's claim that a photograph of a crow and a maribou stork near a city refuse container in Johannesburg's the Star signifies "[white] anxieties about decaying urban infrastructure with fears of incursions from Africa." The caption clearly states that the picture was taken in Uganda. Braude also claimed that coverage of local governments under black control in the white-owned Star expressed "a deep-seated anxiety about dirt" and that Europeans identify non-Europeans with "acts of bodily defecation, violence and subordination." Said Peter Sullivan, editor of the Star: "It is difficult to be polite about such obvious nonsense."

Critics also noted that Braude, who said she had been discouraged by the H.R.C. from personally interviewing journalists, had devoted almost a third of her report to an analysis of racism in Die Afrikaner--the newspaper of the Afrikaner right wing--and in broadcasts of the Afrikaans channel of Radio Pretoria. "That's like looking for anti-Semitism in [Der] Stürmer," commented the Sunday Independent.

That racism persists within a South African press that once was almost exclusively white is of no surprise to most people. But many of South Africa's media--even beyond public television and radio--are now black-owned or editorially managed. In the new, post-apartheid South Africa high-profile black politicians, civil servants and business executives are now the subject of media focus because of their status, not their color. Sunday Times editor Mike Robertson notes that one of his young black journalists, Mzilikaze wa Afrika, won two national awards for his reporting on corruption among high-ranking civil servants despite being harassed and pressured to halt his reporting simply because the people under scrutiny happened to be black. "And we'll continue to withstand such onslaughts," says Robertson.

He can prove that resolve soon. In a move reminiscent of the times when the apartheid government pilloried a troublesome press, the H.R.C. has issued subpoenas to not only editors of the Sunday Times and the weekly Mail and Guardian but also to editors of several daily papers, both English and Afrikaans, and at least one commerical radio station, to appear before it on March 1 to testify on their company policies on reporting events "which impact on racism and possible incidents of racism." They are warned that failure to comply with the summons could elicit a fine or imprisonment for up to six months. It seems South African politicians--of whatever color--cannot resist the temptation to shoot the messenger.