Fears, but NPU stands firm with the rest

The debate within the press about how best to counter government moves to impose new controls on dwindling press freedom raged with renewed intensity this week.

But fears that the established press — large-circulation newspapers represented by the Newspaper Press Union — would sacrifice the alternative press to save themselves from new government controls were allayed, temporarily at least.

After a special meeting at which the latest government move was discussed, the NPU said: “The meeting accepted that the steps which may be taken to handle the State of Emergency will apply to all the media.”

The latest round of speculation about the future of the beleaguered press was triggered by a statement released by President PW Botha last Friday after discussions on the security situation with the NPU chairman and executive officials of the four main newspaper companies, NasionalePers, Perskor, Argus and Saan. The statement contained the NPU’s verbatim response to Botha.

The Press Union fully realises that South Africa is being subjected to a many-pronged but well co-ordinated revolutionary onslaught,”the NPU said. “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.”

The NPU went on to stress the importance to the press of fulfilling its function of objective and fair reporting, and of guarding its credibility against all threats, even those from its own ranks. ‘But if that part of the statement allayed the anxieties aroused by the first part, the concluding sentences rekindled them.

“The Media Council was not created by the Press Union to deal with conditions such as have been brought by the intensification of the revolutionary onslaught and the resultant State of Emergency,” the NPU said. “We believe that the mechanism of the Media Council may need reviewing to take into account the State of Emergency, the revolutionary onslaught and the concern you (Botha) expressed on November 28…”

The NPU then proposed a meeting between itself, the chairman of the Media Council and a special cabinet committee, triggering speculation that, having recognised the inadequacy of the Media Council to regulate reporting of a “revolutionary situation”, it planned to discuss revision of the council’s, code of conduct with the government. Only the established press is subject to the Media Council’s jurisdiction.

Thus fears were generated that a deal was pending in which the established press would gain immunity from new government controls by agreement to submit to a revised Media Council code of conduct — and that the alternative press would beleft to face government censorship.

The NPU agreed, however, ‘both at its in-house meeting on Monday and at its Tuesday meeting with a special cabinet committee that the sweeping new controls should apply to all newspapers.

But, judging from a statement by Home Affairs Minister Stoffel Botha after the NPU-cabinet committee meeting, the prospect of revision of the Media Council code of conduct to buy a decree of immunity for the NPU newspapers has not been removed.

A second meeting between the NPU and the cabinet committee has been scheduled for February 13, at which the NPU and the Media Council are expected to make suggestions for the revision of the council’s rules o fprocedure and code of conduct, Botha said.

At next year’s meeting, Botha added, “the application of steps which may be taken with regard to members of the NPU, or publications under the authority of the code of conduct and the Media Council, will be considered, in order to handle the Emergency.”

One thread in recent South African press history consists of recurring attempts by the newspaper industry to forestall direct government controls by imposing its own professional controls.

First there was the establishment of the Press Council to avoid falling under the Publications Act. Then, during the premiership of Vorster, there was the granting of powers to the council to fine erring newspapers. Finally, after the Steyn Commission and its proposal to establish a register of journalists, there was the establishment of the more widely- based Media Council.

But these moves, at best, delayed government demands ‘for more and more control. The latest government measures raise the question of how much time is left to play for and how much freedom remains to be salvaged, if any at all.

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Patrick Laurence
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