Pretoria to the BBC: GET OUT!

Foreign journalists yesterday became the first casualties in the anticipated post election security clampdown when two correspondents for leading British television networks were given days to leave the country.

The effective expulsion of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Michael Buerk and International Television News’s Peter Sharp brings to nine the number of foreign journalists expelled since the Emergency. It has been described by the Foreign Correspondents Association as an attack on press freedom in South Africa ”unparalleled in recent times”.

”Until now, South African authorities have professed to support press freedom,” FCA chairman Andrew Torchia said. ”Now there is every sign that the government intends simply to end independent coverage of the South African social conflict because it believes that secrecy will help it win.”

Newspaper reports have linked the government’s refusal to renew the work permits of the BBC’s Michael Buerk and ITN’s chief Sharpe with overseas television networks’ coverage of recent police action against protesting University of Cape Town students. The two journalists have been ordered to leave the country by May 24, when their permits expire. Director-General of Home Affairs, Gerrie van Zyl, yesterday said no reason had been given for the decision.

Buerk described the action against him as a ”major step — the government has taken a substantial step along a particular road. We’ve played it pretty straight covering the story more modestly than the other networks.”

Voted journalist of the year in 1985 by Britain’s Royal Television Society for his coverage of the Ethiopian famine, 41-year-old Buerk was due to leave South Africa for Britain shortly so his twin sons could begin secondary school there.

He said all the overseas television agencies had covered the UCT protests in the fortnight before the elections, as had the SABC. The BBC had run the footage only after checking that all media lawyers had agreed that a recent Natal Supreme Court judgement had overturned the Emergency ban on reporting security force action.

Buerk said he would attempt to appeal against his expulsion, although the government is not obliged to hear him. He said he hoped the government would not block a replacement correspondent.

The FCA said it believed both Buerk and Sharp, an Australian, were ”widely experienced and professional reporters” who had acted within the law. ”That is why the government resorted to expelling them when their current work permits expire — a process that allows no appeal, that does not have to be justified in court and for which the government need give no reasons.”

Earlier this week, Jon Lewis, the British-born editor of the SA Labour Bulletin, was refused permanent residence in South Africa, and told to leave the country within 30 days. Lewis, who is married to a South African, said he would appeal against the decision.

Early this year another academic connected to the Labour Bulletin, University of Witwatersrand professor Phillip Bonner, was also threatened with expulsion but was allowed to remain in the country after giving certain undertakings.

Meanwhile, Gaye Davis reports from Cape Town that Cape Times Deputy News Editor Tony Weaver gave evidence in the Cape Town Regional Court yesterday, where he is facing charges of contravening section 278 of the Police Act. He allegedly published untrue statements about the police in a BBC interview last year relating to a shootout in Guguletu in which seven alleged ANC guerrillas died.

Weaver told the court he had refrained from telling the BBC of eyewitness accounts which contradicted an earlier police version of the shoot-out, because they had not been checked. He and another journalist had subsequently conducted follow-up interviews with relatives of the dead men who all denied the men were guerrillas or involved in politics.

In reporting this in a later BBC interview, Weaver said he was simply repeating the feelings of the families. ”They were not making allegations, they were stating their feelings,” he said. The hearing continues.

 

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