The retarnishing of South Africa’s image abroad has become an annual event. In 1976, it was the Soweto riots, in 1977, the death in detention of black militant Steve Biko and, in 1978, the Muldergate information scandals, which, for the first time, made the country’s national government appear not only wrongheaded but also corrupt. It is too early to determine which South African event will leave the largest international smudge this year. But one ironic nomination for the award is bound to be legislation, introduced last week, which is clearly designed to prevent the press from uncovering anything as embarrassing as the Biko or Muldergate misdeeds.
Tagged by the government an AntiRumormongering Bill, and by its critics
as the “cover-up bill,’’the legislation would force publishers to submit allegations of government corruption or irregularities to an advocate-general who would rule on whether they were suitable for publication. In short, no reporting on government scandal without government approval.
The bill is coupled to two other pieces of legislation before parliament, one of which would reverse the onus rules of normal libel law and require publishers to prove they had reasonable grounds to believe anything they published about the police was true, and another making it an offence to anticipate the findings of an inquest. Together the measures would have made it all but impossible for the South African press to ferret out and publish the stories that showed Biko died a brutal prison death far removed from Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger’s initial ingenuous suggestion that he was the victim of his own hunger strike.
While the target of the legislation is clearly the muckraking English-language press led by The Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Express, long hated by the ruling Afrikaners, it will have general application. Accordingly, the Afrikaans-language newspapers, traditionally docile apologists for the government, have loudly condemned what the Sunday newspaper Rapport said would be “a drastic reduction of already attenuated press freedom.” (The bills add to a minefield of 13 different laws that South African editors have to deal with every day.)
But the Sunday Post, the country’s largest black-run newspaper, said the problems “lie in the deep racial and economic cleavages in our society and the totalitarian measures which only deepen them.”
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