The South African government warned Friday that it would punish CBS News for any transgressions of the country’s laws or media regulations in the production of the network’s documentary “Children of Apartheid.”
Stoffel Botha, who as minister of home affairs exercises sweeping authority over foreign and domestic news media, said that he was “investigating the full circumstances surrounding the making of the film with a view to taking whatever steps I find necessary.”
Those measures could range from simply a formal reprimand of CBS personnel here to expulsion of the network’s bureau chief and correspondent, to closure of its bureau in South Africa.
The government’s anger over the one-hour CBS News special, which aired Dec. 5, was fully reflected in Botha’s statement condemning the program for “blatant distortion, exaggeration of negative aspects, misrepresentation of facts, bias and unfair comment.”
“I am at a loss to understand CBS’ motives and attitudes in creating and screening such tainted pictures of aspects of present-day South Africa,” Botha said in the strongest government attack on the foreign news media in many months. “It is hard to think of a respectable reason why a national television service in a civilized country should sink to such levels of disrespect for the accepted norms and standards of professional journalism.”
Botha accused CBS News of failing to honor unspecified commitments that he said he received from network officials in the past two years after previous controversies.
He also said that Walter Cronkite, the veteran CBS newsman who narrated the program, had violated restrictions imposed when he was granted a tourist visa this year; that Brian Ellis, the program’s producer, had failed to get the government work permit required of journalists here; and that, in effect, they had conspired to get around government press restrictions.
Two days after the documentary aired, the ministry of home affairs said it was investigating “various aspects” of the production “in depth.”
Cronkite, as he opens his narration, suggests that the network ran considerable risks and perhaps even skirted the law to report the anger of South Africa’s black youths and the great gulf between them and whites of their age.
Ellis, apparently irritated by a special review of the program by the network’s South African lawyer, implied in U.S. news reports last month that the documentary had, in some way, been toned down.
“The breach of assurances and undertakings given to me . . . will be taken into account in determining further action on my part,” Botha said. But he gave no indication of when he would make a decision in the case.
William F. Mutschmann, the network’s bureau chief, described Botha’s statement as possibly defamatory, but he referred all specific questions to CBS headquarters in New York.
Although Cronkite was not available for comment, Tom Goodman, a CBS News spokesman, said Friday in New York: “We have only just received the letter (from Botha). We will review the letter, and we plan to respond to it.” He declined to go beyond that statement.
He said the South African government so far has taken no retaliatory action against CBS. The controversy here around “Children of Apartheid” stems from three main factors:
--The failure of the strict media regulations, adopted as part of the 18-month-old state of emergency, to prevent broadcast of critical material. The government contends such material undermines its international standing, even its legitimacy overseas, and that it fuels black resistance at home.
--South Africa’s inability to change its foreign image, to project itself as undertaking far-reaching political, economic and social reforms--all of which are dismissed by black spokesmen in “Children of Apartheid.” Government officials see the program as part of a “visual onslaught,” which includes the Richard Attenborough movie “Cry Freedom” about the late black activist Steve Biko, the Home Box Office film “Mandela” and other cinema and television depictions of South Africa today.
--The involvement of President Pieter W. Botha’s youngest daughter, Rozanne, 27, in the program. A series of interviews with her by Ellis were contrasted with matching sessions with Zinzi Mandela, also 27, the daughter of the imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson R. Mandela.
While she agreed to participate in the program to point out the ways in which she saw the country changing, “how the program was cut was something out of my hands,” Rozanne Botha said earlier this week. “This is a chance one has to take.”
Two major pro-government newspapers have called the production “a poisonous film” and accused CBS News of “misusing Rozanne Botha to get at South Africa.”
Times staff writer Jay Sharbutt contributed to this article.