Comment and Analysis

Back to Black? Really?

Niren Tolsi

The blacked out Mac Maharaj story isn't worth shouting apartheid about, says Niren Tolsi.

In You Have Been Warned, Weekly Mail founding editor Irwin Manoim’s history of the first 10 years of the newspaper that became the Mail & Guardian, there is a revealing chapter about censorship under apartheid.

In “Night of the Black Lines” the action builds up to the Weekly Mail‘s famous “black lines edition” of June 20 1986 by following the smooth-talking, name-dropping (Harry Oppenheimer impressed in an 80s Springs where voting for the Groot Krokodil was considered liberal) and side-stepping that prevented the paper’s previous week’s edition from being confiscated off the press by Springs police officers as new state of emergency regulations were announced hours before the paper’s deadline.

This didn’t prevent police removing copies from the streets and corner shops the next day though.

In that edition, many of the restrictions of the new state of emergency announced by state president PW Botha were spelt out as police raided the homes of activists and unionists in swoops that netted thousands.

The state of emergency was extended from 36 magisterial districts to the entire country.

It was a time of “[s]anctions, repression and a news blackout as the government steers SA down a road to nowhere,” noted the Weekly Mail.

There were “tighter controls on publications, including a prohibition on ‘subversive statements’ and publications of a ‘subversive nature’”.

Press gags were back in place with extra provisions that gave the security forces “the power to regulate and prohibit ‘any comment or any news’ in connection with their own conduct”.

Journalists were not allowed into townships to cover the widespread fire-and-brimstone engulfing them even, absurdly, if they lived there.

Strikes, boycott action, disinvestment, sanctions, civil disobedience or anything “undermining the confidence of the public”, could not be reported upon by the press.

Those were repressive times. 

As evidenced a week later when the Weekly Mail staff were putting together the June 20 edition.

That week the newspaper’s lawyer David Dison, whom Manoim describes as someone who “saw his job as stretching the limits of the possible”, was on leave. In his place were two more “cautious” lawyers, David Hoffe and Andrew Pearce.

Like the apartheid system they sought to protect, the state of emergency regulations were pervasive.

As Manoim noted: “There was hardly a page on which the lawyers could find a statement that a police colonel might not deem subversive. Out went an impressionistic drawing of the ‘76 Soweto uprising. Next went an advertisement for a business book listing disinvestment companies. The red pen descended on an article about insurance premiums, up by 40% because the unrest had got out of hand. And on an ironic case of a white farmer who was forcibly removed from a black homeland. ‘You work for years, then apartheid takes it all away,’ complained the farmer.”

Those were absurd times too.

Manoim recounts how—on the advice of the paper’s more cautious lawyers that week—he, in consultation with co-editor Anton Harber, decided that with a print deadline looming, the most expeditious move would be to make a “protest point by parading the lawyers’ censorship line on every page”.

The production team, noted Manoim, “insisted on using stripping tape and making sure that each censorship line was placed with perfect symmetry down the centre of the words, leaving the tops and bottoms of the letters exposed to aid the truly determined reader”.

At the announcement of the 1986 state of emergency, “press censorship was honoured with a central role”, noted Manoim in his book.

“Every few months the regulations were updated, and with each new update, the press censorship component grew a little. By 1988, the regulations filled 32 pages of very small print, 18 of them devoted to thou-shalt-not rules aimed at the press,” writes Manoim.

This is not the landscape in which the media currently operate in 2011.

In contemporary South Africa, the state has responded with increasing violence against the almost daily community protests that explode around the country. Protagonists in the corrupting of our nascent constitutional democracy—usually politicians or high-powered business people (or both)—have used last minute court interdicts when attempting to gag the media. State intelligence (when not fighting internecine ANC factional wars) infiltrate social movements representing the poor and attempt to disembowel them from within.

And, of course the ANC—the one-time liberation movement, now governing party—on Tuesday used its majority in the national legislature to vote in favour of the Protection of State Information Bill being sent to the National Council of Provinces for ratification.

The Bill, when it becomes law, appears unlikely to pass constitutional muster considering the restrictions it places on the public and the fourth estate with regard to the possession and usage of government information.

But it is a threat to whistleblowers and journalists that emphasises the ANC’s tendency to increasingly assume the methods and madness of the apartheid regime.

So can last week’s decision by the M&G to black out its lead story about President Jacob Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj be compared to what happened with the Weekly Mail‘s June 20 1986 edition?

I believe not.

This has, however, been suggested by M&G Online deputy editor Verashni Pillay in her column Back To Black.

It is an unfortunately hysterical and reactionary perspective. It is time for some real perspective.

The M&G decided, on the advice of its lawyers, to black out the story rather than print (and be damned) or pull it all together. This under threat of both criminal and civil prosecution by Maharaj’s lawyers who suggested that the M&G was in contravention of section 41(6) of the National Prosecuting Authority Act.

Section 41(6) of the NPA Act reads as follows: “Notwithstanding any other law, no person shall without the permission of the national director or a person authorised in writing by the national director disclose to any other person—(a) any information which came to his or her knowledge in the performance of his or her functions in terms of this Act or any other law; (b) the contents of any book or document or any other item in the possession of the prosecuting authority; or (c) the record of any evidence given at an investigation as contemplated in section 28(l), except—
(i) for the purpose of performing his or her functions in terms of this Act or any other law; or
(ii) when required to do so by order of a court of law.

A reading of the section would suggest it was included in an amendment to the original Act a year after it was promulgated to protect information gathered by the NPA and the identity of those sources—normal practice one would assume.

Especially since access to section 28 interviews is allowed for through a written application to the director of public prosecutions or through a court order.

Hardly the stuff of a fascist regime.

While one may question Maharaj’s motives in bringing the section 41(6) to the attention of the M&G and threatening civil and criminal action (which, inexplicably, he has followed up on)—rather than being upfront and frank with us—he was completely within his rights to do so in a country where the rule of law is supreme.

As was the M&G’s decision to respect the rule of law and black out the story.

Yes, there are disturbing signs—none more so than the Protection of State Information Bill or the state security apparatus’s repressive attitude to protest—that the ANC-led government is mimicking apartheid’s National Party.

But to draw direct comparisons with the edition of November 18 2011 of the M&G with the Weekly Mail‘s edition of June 20 1986—and the contexts surrounding both—would be too hasty a shriek.

Niren Tolsi is a journalist for the M&G. Follow him on Twitter here.


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