/ 28 October 1988

The Weekly Mail and the Minister

Asked by a reporter, he said he had not yet had time to read representations submitted by the newspaper after his threat to act against it. There is no time limit on Botha's response. The matter now lies entirely in his hands – he can suspend the paper at any time without any further warning.

  • Weekly Mail subscribers are assured: even if the worst happens, we will be back, and your subscription will continue from the day the suspension ends.
  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu yesterday added his voice to the protest against the threat to the Weekly Mail saying “a government decision to suspend the paper would constitute a further demonstration of its totalitarian nature and an act of fear and insecurity.”  “The newspaper (Weekly Mail) is one of those which will prevent whites from ever being able to say in the future: “We didn't know.' It has explored the limits of the law in its effort to publish the news."

For further reaction to the threat to the Weekly Mail, see PAGE 11.


The Weekly Mail’s reply to Stoffel Botha

Should the Weekly Mail ignore allegations of Security force abuses in Namibia or Angola? And if the SA Defence Force is investigating those allegations, should the newspaper ignore that too? These are questions raised by the Weekly Mail in representations submitted this week in response to the threat by the Minister of Home Affairs, Stoffel Botha, to close the newspaper.

The Weekly Mail publishers produced nine pages of careful argument challenging Botha’s suggestion that it had systematically published "subversive propaganda". They also asked Botha to meet the paper’s editors. The Minister said last week that the time was not appropriate for such a meeting, but the newspaper has repeated its request. "We received your recent (warning) letter with some degree of surprise and disappointment," the publishers said, pointing to the fact that the Minister had been silent about the newspaper for five months.

"Our newspaper is an independent and critical publication … not a purveyor of one brand of criticism against apartheid and the present National Party government. "We believe that we produce a weekly newspaper which provokes thoughtful and necessary debate regarding the current South African condition.” The paper is read, the editors argued, by a wide range of leading academics, trade unionists, businessmen, politicians, professionals and community and church leaders. "These are agents of change in our society. Surely we do not wish to restrict their information but rather to make it as broad and as wide-ranging as possible. The Minister had objected to two kinds of material: coverage of security force action, particularly allegations of abuses, and reports of restricted or banned resistance organisations. Both of these could be found in the mainstream press more than in the Weekly Mail.

"In Afrikaans and English daily newspapers, there are continual references to the activities and utterances of unlawful organisations, predominantly the ANC, and continual reports of allegations of maltreatment of detainees and others at the hands of the security forces. "We continue to fail to understand why the Weekly Mail is singled out in regard to the publishing of such matters," they said.

Dealing with individual articles cited by the Minister, the publishers said: 

  • Two of the articles cited by the Minister dealt with the ANC's new constitutional guidelines and allegedly promoted the public image or esteem of the banned organisation. These guidelines had been published in a number of newspapers, including Business Day, The Sowetan and The Star. The Weekly Mail report was a "relatively sober analysis  …  including hostile comment from significant leadership figures in our country. "We cannot understand how such critical and analytical pieces can promote the image and esteem of the ANC anymore than the daily, sensationalistic coverage of, for example, Dr Danie Craven' s talks with the ANC." One complaint was about a PAC statement which was highly critical of the ANC's constitutional proposals. "We cannot agree with your understanding of this piece. It is published in the context of a general debate about the ANC proposals. “The context makes it clear that the intention could never have been to improve the esteem or image of the PAC," they said. 
  • Another article, "Is the spirit of Robert Sobukwe rising?" (August 5-11), was by Dr Tom lodge, "a respected political scientist … (who) holds no brief for the Pan Africanist Congress and whose analysis is fundamentally objective." 
  • A report headlined "A Matie in Maputo" (September 23-29) was alleged to have enhanced the image of the ANC. Written by one of 14 Stellenbosch students who visited Maputo during that month, it dealt only in passing with their discussions with the ANC.

On allegations that the Weekly Mail had fomented feelings of hatred or hostility towards the security forces, the editors charge that Botha has taken no account of the nature of the newspaper and the perceptions of the likely reader. "Our newspaper is not a mass circulation daily. It is an in-depth weekly review of current events, political development, arts, sport and the economy with an average sales figure of approximately 25 000." The likely reader was "a serious and highly literate person who in all probability reads widely and does not merely rely upon the Weekly Mail for information. "Such a reader is able to balance copy which is critical of the security forces with material that is found in other publications. “The SADF itself recognises that these abuses take place and has constituted a tribunal to investigate the allegations and try the offenders," they said.

Reporting of alleged atrocities in the Angola/Namibia conflict was responsible reporting as long as it was well-researched and the editors bad reasonable grounds for believing the allegations to be well-founded, they added. In the report on allegations of misconduct in Namibia, it was significant that the story ended with the description of an ordinary citizen injured in a Swapo attack. “There are suggestions of atrocities on both sides and ultimately the real victims are those ordinary citizens caught in the middle," they said.

The final article objected to was an opinion piece written b the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, the Reverend Frank Chikane. This represented a single and personalised view which was well-known and had been widely publicised by the media including SABC. "By citing this article, you leave us with no conclusion to draw other than that merely quoting Frank Chikane or allowing him to put his personal view is impermissible."  The representations end by noting that the publishers had been advised mere were grounds to attack Botha's warnings in court and listed the legal grounds for such an attack. However, the publishers said they hoped this would not be necessary, and that the Minister would agree to meet the editors.

Messages of support pour in

The Weekly Mail has received a flood of support letters and statements. A number of foreign governments, businessmen, trade unions, local and international anti-censorship organisations and others have made representations to Botha urging him not to close the paper.

Among the reactions were: 

  • US Ambassador Edward Perkins issued a statement saying: The position of my government on, freedom of the press is well-known. The United States deplores any attempt to censor the press, for its end result is to rob all citizens of their right to be informed." 
  • The Reverend Frank Chikane general secretary of the SA Council of Churches, and the author of one of the articles cited by Botha in his warning, said: "Restrictions on the truth are a recipe for disaster. "One of the articles cites is an opinion piece I wrote on the harassment of my family by the police. The doublespeak of the state is again clear. "My article is supposed to stir up hatred against the forces, yet it was a word-for-word factual account of actions that took place. It merely exposed the truth about the situation and experiences of my family (and echoed the experiences of many other families) that are raided and subjected to such harassment. "Rather than my article being a problem, if is the action of the security forces that stirs up feelings of hatred and hostility against the security forces," he said. "One cannot stop a volcano from erupting by not reporting about it. Rather the reports should be a barometer or indicator, for all the residents of our country to gauze the danger we face if the root cause of the crisis in our country is not dealt with as a matter of urgency. "Without such barometers as the Weekly Mail, some will slide towards the destruction unknowingly," he said. 
  • The American Society of Newspaper Editors ' Bill Kovach, who is also editor of the Atlanta journal and Constitution, urged the Minister to take no further steps against the paper. "Actions such as those taken against the press in South Africa render the form of free government transparent and reveal an authoritarian substance, he said in a statement.
  • The International Federation of Journalists, representing more than 150 000 journalists, joined the call, saying actions against opposition newspapers scare a testament to the fact that a free press, the bedrock of any democracy, is not safe in the hands of South Africa’s present rulers".
  • The World Press Freedom Committee in Washington expressed dismay at the action against the Weekly Mail, saying it “could only damage the image of a country in the world”. 
  • Dr Dennis Worrall, leader of the Independent Party, urged Botha "not to do something which will weaken our already attenuated democracy, damage a major institution and hurt a quality newspaper". 
  • The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), in an appeal to Botha, warned that "violations of press freedom remove the very foundations of dialogue". 
  • Index on Censorship warned in its letter to Botha that "the domestic and foreign press in your country are already heavily censored, to apply further gaps would be a backward step. 

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail


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