When Governments Gag the Word : South Africa: Where Journalists Must Stay for a Changing Story

<i> Richard G. Sergay is a producer-reporter for ABC, assigned to South Africa since 1985. </i>

Foreign newsmen in South Africa are taking a verbal beating. The South African government is not the culprit this time; now, the forces of criticism are fellow journalists in the United States.

Some reporters on the outside are claiming that a “failure of nerve” has prompted foreign correspondents in South Africa to go easy on the story. And they make rather radical suggestions--that reporters here should pack up and leave.

The most prominent critic is former CBS News producer Richard Cohen. In an article for the New York Times, he wrote, “While we compromise to keep our credentials in South Africa, we no longer truly cover events as we used to.”

He explained that “South Africa is winning the war of images and perhaps the time has come for Western news organizations and specifically American network news operations to say ‘enough’ to the government in Pretoria and to pick up our marbles and go home.”


Cohen accuses the foreign press corps of covering up “the real story.” What he fails to grasp is that the South Africa story has changed. And nothing would please the South African government more than to carry out its policies of limited apartheid reform without the glare of international and domestic attention.

Covering South Africa as a journalist--foreign or local--is no game. It carries risks and remains one of the most frustrating beats in the world because of severe media curbs imposed by the white-led government in June, 1986.

Attempting to improve its damaged image overseas and stop what it calls “negative publicity,” the South African government has successfully limited reporters’ access to a wide range of legitimate news and news sources.

In fact, the main target has been foreign television coverage. According to officials here, television not only ‘fanned the flames’ of revolution but also sparked U.S. sanctions against South Africa. Authorities continue to use sweeping powers under a nationwide state of emergency to interfere in the news-gathering process.


Emergency restrictions prohibit reporting anti-government violence. Off limits, too, are reports on “security force action,” the condition of people held in detention, strikes, boycotts and protests.

Violating the regulations can result in heavy fines, jail sentences, or--more likely for foreign reporters--expulsion from the country. The government has expelled or refused to renew visas for more than a dozen foreign newsmen.

The effect has been dramatic.

Even apartheid opponents admit that repressive emergency regulations have worked, quelling overt signs of unrest that once were a staple of television coverage. Sustained violence no longer dominates segregated black townships.

Thousands of dissidents have been arrested without charge. An uneasy calm has enveloped black ghettos across the country.

Since the nature of the story has clearly changed in the last two years, it’s not surprising that video images have also changed.

The violence and anti-government demonstrations that flashed across American screens throughout 1985-86 have all but disappeared. They generally no longer exist. To blame American news organizations for failing to report or broadcast those images is misguided and dishonest.

Despite the restrictions, the story is still aggressively reported by Western correspondents, including U.S. television and radio networks. Journalists, domestic and foreign, still argue daily with government officials about the curbs, still pursue stories about injustices pervading South African life.


While television admittedly thrives on the dramatic, what critics easily forget is the routine--the scores of reports filed since the curbs were imposed: reports of black and white South Africans sharing a weekend together in a segregated township; the impact of an American company pulling out of South Africa because of anti-apartheid pressure at home, and an illegal three-day nationwide strike by black workers.

Perhaps the stories are not what some call “sexy” television, but they do reflect current reality--not some perceived illusion among those who live thousands of miles away or who occasionally visit.

Critics have also alleged that the Western press now often “cowers,” neutralized by a fear of angering the government. In fact, the opposite is true.

When there is anti-apartheid activity, foreign newsmen are there despite obvious risks. In Cape Town recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other leading clergymen attempted to march on Parliament to protest government restrictions on 17 anti-apartheid groups. The demonstration was clearly illegal under South African law, yet dozens of reporters including U.S. camera crews were there. Several journalists were detained, their video tapes confiscated. Still, the story was reported by all three major U.S. networks that evening.

Suggestions that U.S. reporters should pack up are shortsighted and, in fact, play into Pretoria’s hands. Independent observers are what South Africa doesn’t want. Severe limits are placed on the number of visas given to foreign newsmen. In an effort to tighten the reins even further, the emergency restrictions, reimposed for a third year in June, 1988, demand that free-lance journalists register with the government.

However objectionable the laws are to reporters in South Africa, U.S. correspondents here are no different than American citizens in any foreign nation. They are expected to obey the laws of the land--like them or not.

Suggesting that American correspondents leave here voluntarily is similar to suggesting that reporters in other parts of the world, where free expression and dissent are restricted, should also go home.

Reporters here continue to push the limits of the restrictions, reflecting as accurately as possible the “real” story. But when reporting facts proves impossible, because of police interference for example, journalists generally say so in their copy.


It is irresponsible to propose that since reporters in South Africa no longer have a “free hand,” they should turn, as some critics suggest, to “independent film makers, political activists and amateurs.”

For locals, that can mean jail.

Are those on the outside willing to take the risk of seriously endangering those on the inside for a few minutes of video? Are those on the outside willing to accept video from sources that may be unreliable, unchecked and biased?

Finally, South Africa should no longer be expected to make headline news every day or even every week. Overt violence has receded under enormous police repression; government reform is on the back burner. Both developments have been reported and broadcast.

If media restrictions were lifted tomorrow, in fact, the nature of events here is likely to remain the same--a better print than television story. There are very few dramatic television pictures at the moment, whether by professional or amateur camera operators.

The television story, of course, should not always be dictated by the dramatic--no network would make that the sole criterion for coverage. But neither should outsiders expect the story in 1988 to look as it did in 1985.

In spite of far-reaching restrictions, there is still a remarkable amount of quality work by U.S. correspondents in South Africa reporting.