While the influence of newspapers seems to have diminished in favour of online reporting in recent years, there’s no disputing the role that the media have always played in representing the interests of the people. The stories that newspapers choose to feature (or not feature for that matter) guide public opinion on all manner of things, from how popular the Kardashians are to how people view the operations of the government. So influential is the media that an international PR agency has recently been found guilty of using the unwitting South African media to further divide black and white people in our country – such is the power of words. So, it makes sense then that during apartheid, the government would do all that they could to try and control the press.
For many years the South African government tried their very best to retain a semblance of a free press. They were caught between a rock and hard place; on the one hand they wanted the international community to look favourably on South Africa, and restricting the press was no way to go about that, but on the other it was essential that they controlled what the press published if they were to maintain the apartheid status quo.
While some form of censorship existed under the apartheid regime – the Publications Act of 1974, for example, gave the South African government the power to censor movies, plays, books, and other entertainment programmes – it was really only in the mid 1980s that things started to reach a climax. Prior to then, the government could claim that the press was free to publish whatever it wanted, provided that it stayed within the boundaries of the law. Many of these laws were vague though, and intended to encourage self-censorship. It made the task of the editor an onerous one, with one editor describing editing a South African newspaper in 1980 as “walking through a minefield blindfolded”.
In the 1980s unrest in the townships increased dramatically, and the government responded with ever harsher tactics, often witnessed by the local and international press. By the mid-1980s the South African government had decided that the level of press freedom did more harm than good for their cause, and increased censorship and media restrictions severely.
A state of emergency was declared in 1985, allowing the executive branch of the government to act against the media without parliamentary approval. This control came on top of laws that already restricted reporting on ‘subversive statements’, security force actions, the treatment of political detainees, and boycotts and protests.
The broad description of what made for a ‘subversive statement’ included everything from encouraging the public to dodge the draft, to encouraging workers to go on strike. In addition, newspapers were banned from publishing information on anyone advocating subversion, essentially putting a stop to coverage of the anti-apartheid movement. When it came to security force actions, reporters were specifically prohibited from providing any first-hand accounts of political disturbances; they could only use information provided by the government. So, if a reporter witnessed a shooting involving the police or soldiers, he or she wouldn’t be able report on the story until a version of the event was released by official sources.
As the 80s progressed, pressure from the government increased. In December 1986, the Newspapers Press Union released a statement via the Prime Minister’s office which read, “The press union fully realises that South Africa is being subjected to a many-pronged, but well-coordinated revolutionary onslaught. We accept the need to do everything in our power to avoid giving support and encouragement to those seeking revolutionary change by overt as well as covert means”.
In late January 1986, the South African police were given sweeping permission to censor all media, and just a few months later, in August 1987, Home Affairs Minister, Stoffel Botha, was granted the ability to close any newspaper believed to be fanning revolution for a period of up to three months. It was also now required that all reporters register with the government.
In June, 1988, the government went even further, making it illegal to quote members of banned anti-apartheid organisations or their spokespeople. At the same time that the new restrictions were announced, the state of emergency was extended, and the government began shutting newspapers left and right. The first newspaper to be closed was The New Nation, a Catholic Church-funded publication accused of inciting revolution. The Weekly Mail was closed for a month by the government in November 1988. In early 1989, the government threatened four more publications with closure: Work in Progress, a leftist monthly magazine known for its sharp political analysis; Grassroots, a newspaper popular in the mixed-race townships outside of Cape Town; New Era, a monthly publication of the arts department at the University of Cape Town; and Al Qalam, an anti-apartheid Muslim weekly.
In the beginning the restrictions were limited to local press only but it was the international media that was causing the majority of problems for the apartheid government. In a last-ditch attempt to restrict the reporting of the atrocities committed by the government against its own people, restrictions were extended to the international press. The New York Times published a description of these restrictions at the end of a 1987 article about censorship:
Editor’s Note: South African press restrictions now prohibit journalists from transmitting dispatches on any security actions, protests, detentions or ‘subversive statements’ without clearance by Government censors
The Times apparently failed to meet this standard and their primary correspondent in South Africa was expelled from the country without any formal explanation in early 1987.
While the emergency regulations were effective in their basic goal of stopping coverage of the unrest, the South African government lost any legitimacy in terms of a ‘free press’ in the eyes of the world. It’s possible that censorship helped the National Party retain power for just a while longer, but the opposite can also be argued. In the words of journalist, Arno Rosenfeld:
So long as they let themselves be covered by the media, the world would let them explain their moral sins away. As long as the facts were laid out for the world to see, they could have their day in court. But once they resorted to hiding behind censorship, they weren’t left a leg to stand on, and then it was simply a matter of time before it all came crashing down.
Censorship Laws During Apartheid (Drawn from a list published by The Star in 1980):
- Electoral Consolidation Act (1946): Every report, letter, article, bill, placard, poster, pamphlet, circular, cartoon or other printed matter which is intended or likely to affect the result of an election or by-election to the House of Assembly or provincial council must bear the name and address of the person who has written or produced it
- Commissions Act (1947): This provided for regulations that can place wide-ranging curbs on press coverage of the work of commissions. Prevented the media from attending sittings of commissions or accessing the records of commissions and laid out penalties for the publication of information regarding commission doings
- Righteous Assemblies and Suppression of Communism Act No. 15; later called the Internal Security Act (1950): Passed shortly after the National Party came to power. The law allowed the government to ban organisations and public figures that supported or promoted communists, from operating or seeking public office. Furthermore, it allowed the banning of publications that promoted ‘communism’. However, the definition of communism was so wide as to include any call for what could be considered radical change. Thus, in later years, the act was used to suppress groups calling for an end to apartheid
- Radio Act (1952): Made it an offence to publish a radio communication which a person is not authorised to receive. This meant that unlike in Western countries,where many newspapers monitor ambulance, fire department and police radio signals, South African media was prohibited from doing so
- Criminal Law Amendment Act (1953): Newspapers were banned from editorially supporting campaigns against laws wherein the campaign violated the law. Therefore, if a person gave a speech in support of overturning that law, and a court later found the speech subversive and in violation of the law, a newspaper that had supported the campaign could be held liable
- Criminal Procedure Act (1955): Journalists were required to turn over their sources if asked to do so by a court, and were jailed if they refused
- Official Secrets Act (1956): Made it an offence to communicate anything relating to munitions of war or any military, police or security matter to any persons or for any purse prejudicial to the safety of the interests of South Africa. This meant any newspaper publishing confidential information that could conceivably be used by an enemy of the state was in violation of the law. The law also permitted court proceedings to take place behind closed doors
- Defence Act (1957): Prohibited coverage of military or naval action without the express given consent of the Minster of Defense or other authorised individual. It also prohibited, “the publication, without permission, of any statement, comment or rumour relating to any member of the SA Defence Force or any force of a foreign country, calculated to prejudice or embarrass the Government in its foreign relations or to alarm or depress members of the public
- The Prison Act (1959 & 1965): Following an expose on treatment of black prisoners by The Rand Daily Mail, this act was passed putting such a heavy burden of proof on publications when writing about prison conditions that reporting on the subject was nearly completely stopped
- Hotels Act (1965): Prohibited newspapers from knowingly publish false information about a hotel
- Atomic Energy Act (1967): Prohibited newspapers from publishing information about the South African nuclear programme
- Terrorism Act (1967): Stories, letters to the editor, advertisements, columns and leading articles could not contain matter which aided, advised or encouraged people to commit terrorism, as defined by the Act
- Gathering and Demonstrations Act (1973): Prohibited publishing information about an event banned by the government under the Act
- The Publications Act (1974): Established a censorship board which reviewed books, magazines and newspapers and determined what was fit for print
- Petroleum Products Amendment Act (1978): Prohibited publishing without permission any information related to the petroleum industry in South Africa
- Electoral Act (1979): Prohibited conducting opinion polls after nomination day in an election to the House of Assembly or a provincial council or the publishing after nomination day of the results of any opinion poll conducted beforehand
- Police Amendment Act (1979): Prohibited publishing false information about the police without reasonable grounds for believing it was true. The burden of proof was put on the publisher of the information