Threats of Censorship and Closures Bode Ill for South Africa's Anti-Apartheid Press


This year will be tough for South Africa's press, with several anti-apartheid newspapers fighting for survival in the face of government threats to close or censor them.

"I think it's going to be the gloomiest year for a free flow of information," said Gabu Tugwana, acting editor of the New Nation, one of six publications that could be closed under government moves against what it calls "subversive propaganda."

Rex Gibson, deputy editor of the liberal Johannesburg Star, said there has been a pattern for many years of increasing restrictions on the press in South Africa.

"No government, having embarked on this course, is ever happy with the powers it has got. It always needs a little bit more," he said.

Worldwide Uproar

South Africa provoked a worldwide uproar by imposing tight restrictions on the media when a national state of emergency was declared in June, 1986, after months of black protest violence.

The curbs barred firsthand reporting of political unrest and severely restricted news about strikes, anti-apartheid boycotts and such unofficial township structures as people's courts and street committees.

They were reinforced in August, 1987, with sweeping new powers that enable Home Affairs Minister Stoffel Botha to censor or close for up to three months any newspaper that he believes is fanning revolution.

A 3-month ban could financially ruin a newspaper.

Stories Cut, Dropped

Newspaper editors say that Botha's restrictions are subjective and that it is impossible to know when they have been broken.

They say the present battery of regulations already makes it difficult for newspapers to operate, with many stories cut or dropped on legal advice.

Botha can act against a newspaper that he believes consistently enhances the image of outlawed black nationalist groups, promotes the breakdown of public order or foments hatred of the security forces.

Four publications--New Nation, the left-wing South, the far-right-wing Die Stem and the labor journal Work in Progress--have twice been warned by Botha that they have broken the regulations and could be closed any day.

Botha's Strategy

Two other newspapers--South Africa's biggest-selling black daily, the Sowetan, and the left-wing Weekly Mail--have received one warning.

The Roman Catholic-funded New Nation, South, Weekly Mail and the Sowetan are all widely read by blacks and carry some of the best reporting on life in black townships under apartheid.

Media lawyers believe that Botha will first try to impose an in-house censor on offenders and allow them to close if they refuse. Newspapers like the Sowetan say they would fight government action in court.

If Botha imposed an in-house censor, it would make the journalist's job impossible, said Aggrey Klaaste, deputy editor of the Sowetan.

Violence Feared

"The guy is going to come into the office and start putting the red pen across whatever you do," Klaaste said. "The little credibility you have in the marketplace is gone. I don't suppose many journalists of standing are going to work under such a situation. They are just going to leave the job."

Black newspapers fear that government action against them could close one of the few remaining pressure valves for the voteless black majority and lead to more frustration and violence in the townships.

"For black people, papers like ours are the only kind of avenue where they can vent some of their deeply held feelings, and now it's going to be stopped," Klaaste said. "It's just going to go underground or into the streets, and it's going to get uglier by the minute."

Tugwana said the government should have used the black press as a barometer to see whether it had moved enough toward reform of apartheid.

'Alternative' Press Targeted

"You reform what is wrong," he said. "But if you don't know what is wrong, what are you reforming?

Botha's regulations were presented as directed at the so-called "alternative" press. But editors say mainstream newspapers are not exempt, as the caution to the Sowetan showed.

The Star sounded a warning about diminishing freedom of speech in a recent editorial headlined, "The Lights Go Out."

"Today it is Die Stem and Weekly Mail which may be blacked out. Tomorrow it could be (Johannesburg financial daily) Business Day or this newspaper," it said.

Concerted Campaign

Tugwana believes there has been a concerted campaign against the New Nation, founded just two years ago and the recipient of several awards, since its editor, Zwelakhe Sisulu, was detained in December, 1986. Sisulu, son of jailed African National Congress leader Walter Sisulu, is still being held.

Tugwana called on the international community to protest the erosion of press freedom in South Africa.

"There's a definite need for serious action which will make Pretoria feel it cannot get away with it," he said.

Klaaste, 47, and Tugwana, 33, are no strangers to government action against journalists. Both have been detained without trial, and Klaaste worked for the World newspaper, which was banned in 1977.

Detained 20 Months

Tugwana spent 20 months in detention during 1976 and 1977, including 13 months in solitary confinement. He was never charged and believes that it was punishment for his journalism.

"When you tell the truth in this country, you really pay the price for it," he said.

His detention made him more determined to write about the realities of apartheid despite government restrictions.

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