The Weekly Mail, one of South Africa’s most literate publications opposing apartheid, was shut down Tuesday in the latest in a series of attacks on press freedom under emergency regulations.
The four-week suspension, ordered by Home Affairs Minister Stoffel Botha, followed nearly a year of official warnings. Two weeks ago, Botha said the paper’s coverage of security force activity and banned organizations amounted to “subversive propaganda.”
Dozens of foreign governments and international press organizations, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, had asked Botha not to close the paper.
The Weekly Mail, in a nine-page letter responding to the government’s recent warning, argued that its articles provoke thoughtful and necessary debate among leaders of South African society, including educators, union officials, businessmen, politicians and church leaders.
“Our newspaper is an independent critical publication . . . not a purveyor of one brand of criticism against apartheid,” the letter said.
‘We Will Be Back’
Anton Harber, the paper’s editor, said Tuesday: “We will be back. We have been suspended, but we will not be silenced.”
Botha said he had decided to suspend the Weekly Mail after “carefully considering the circumstances.” He accused the paper of systematically publishing “matter which in my opinion has, or is calculated to have, the effect of causing a threat to the safety of the public or to the maintenance of public order.”
But Harber insisted that the paper had broken no laws.
“What we really threaten,” he said, “is the credibility of this government, which fears a South African public aware of what is going on around us.”
The newspaper, with a nationwide circulation of 25,000, is a tabloid-size review of political and current events. It devotes a large part of its space to a variety of topics ranging from sports and movies to books and art. It has a wide following in anti-apartheid circles, especially among whites, and its readership includes large numbers of relatively young people with high incomes.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, has described the paper as “one of those which will prevent whites from ever being able to say in the future: ‘We didn’t know.’ ”
The suspension, the third this year, was sharply criticized by many.
David Dalling, a spokesman for the white, anti-apartheid Progressive Federal Party, said: “This is a bad day for press freedom and for civil liberty in South Africa. Our country’s name will be further besmirched in the Western world.”
Bob Kernohan, president of the Southern African Society of Journalists, called the government’s action “arbitrary and reprehensible.” He said the Weekly Mail had “fearlessly informed readers of events in the country (that) the government was obviously determined to stifle.”
The U.S. Embassy denounced the suspension and issued a statement saying the press “plays an essential role in any democratic society, and press freedom, inconvenient as it may be on occasion for governments, is nevertheless inseparable from democracy itself.”
The Weekly Mail, an independent paper owned primarily by its employees, has drawn the ire of the government frequently in the 2 1/2 years since it was founded.
In August, an issue was confiscated by the police because of an article expanding on a police report of unrest in Soweto and several other articles quoting young white South Africans who were refusing to do military service. The paper challenged the confiscation in court and lost.
Under emergency regulations, the government may close any publication in the country for up to three months if the home affairs minister considers it a threat to public safety. Earlier this year, the government suspended New Nation, a weekly for blacks published by the South African Catholic Bishops Conference, and South, a Cape Town publication. Both have resumed publishing.
The Weekly Mail had indicated that it could probably not financially survive a three-month suspension, and the government’s one-month suspension may have been intended as a firm but not fatal punishment.