Spot the ‘unacceptable’ page

The Weekly Mail yesterday received a formal warning that Minister of Home Affairs Stoffel Botha is considering action against it in terms of the newest Emergency regulations. The newspaper has 14 days to make written representations to the minister. If he does not find these acceptable, he can publish a warning in the Government Gazette – as he did after issuing a similar warning to the New Nation.

If the minister finds that – in his opinion – a newspaper continues to breach the regulations, it can be banned for three months, or ordered to submit copy for pre-publication censorship. Other newspapers known to have received similar warnings are the New Nation, South, The Sowetan, Work in Progress and Die Stem.

Botha's letter of warning to the Mail, delivered by two Home Affairs officials from Pretoria yesterday morning, said he had considered six consecutive issues of The Weekly Mail, ranging from the issue of October 23-29 to the issue of November 27-December 3. Botha gives the Mail two weeks to make representations. A four-page annexure accompanying the letter set out reasons for the warning.

In the first place there are the items which Botha claims promote the public image or esteem of unlawful organisations and "promote or fan revolution or uprisings in the Republic by having the effect of mustering support for revolutionary organisations." They include an article entitled "Tambo at 70" about the African National Congress president's birthday; Release Mandela Campaign advertisements concerning the release of ANC life prisoner Govan Mbeki; a photograph of a party in Khotso House, Johannesburg, to celebrate Tambo's birthday; an article about a shuffling in the hierarchy of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. All the above were considered to give "positive publicity" to revolutionary leaders and – the ANC.

Botha also found objectionable an article by Weekly Mail journalist Thami Mkhwanazi, a former Robben Island prisoner, which dealt with his recollections of Mbeki and Pan Africanist Congress leader John Nkosi, who was freed at the same time as Mbeki. Most of WM 's other articles on Mbeki 's release were found to have given positive publicity to the ANC as well. One article on Nkosi is alleged to do the same for the PAC. But Botha apparently changed his mind about Nkosi's affiliations. An article headed "Nkosi: Out of jail but back at his books", the minister said, gave "positive publicity … to a leader (symbol) or the ANC".

Photographs reproduced from a recently published book, The Fifties People of South Africa, was found objectionable. In the second place, Botha complains that The Weekly Mail has published articles which "stir up or foment feelings or hatred towards security forces". The items he finds objectionable are:

  • An article headed "A message from the Angolans: Stop the war now".
  • An article on the rent boycott entitled "The billion rand boycott", Botha says, alleges that the SADF "harasses" the residents of Soweto.

In a statement last night, Weekly Mail co-editors Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim said they were "dismayed and mystified by the warning given to this newspaper by the Minister of Home Affairs. "It is difficult to understand the reasons for Mr Botha's warning from the letter we have received. The articles he cites relate in the main to the African National Congress, Govan Mbeki and Oliver Tambo and security force conduct – all matters which have been extensively and routinely reported by the entire media.

"We suggest it is the government itself that has put these matters under the spotlight in recent months and The Weekly Mail has simply done its duty as a newspaper in reporting these developments. "Mr Botha has accused us of "promoting the public image or esteem of (unlawful) organisation."

"The Weekly Mail is an independent newspaper committed to informing South Africans about every aspect of their political life in a critical and fair way. Our contributors have reported developments, such as the movements of Mr Mbeki, ANC activities and statements of its leadership, within the law, and critically evaluated the ANC in the same way as it would any other leading player on the South African stage.

"To date we have never been prosecuted for a breach of any security legislation. In fact, in his letter Mr Botha concedes that the material he is objecting to is legal. "Though Mr Botha's warning is couched in legalisms in fact a close examination shows he has made an arbitrary decision without giving good reason. We fear his action may well foreshadow a more insidious motive: silencing independent and critical voices."

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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