‘Media should get the truth out’

Debate rages about the role the media should take in reporting the truth commission, writes Claudia Braude

* the run-up to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission conducting hearings on the role played by the media during the apartheid years, the debate surrounding the press playing a reconciliatory role raged among journalists at a workshop held in Cape Town last weekend.

The workshop organised by the Media Peace Centre – a non-profit organisation which established itself independently after the phasing out of the National Peace Secretariat – examined the media’s coverage of the commission and its hearings.

Print, radio and TV journalists, truth commissioners, cartoonists, writers, psychologists and academics discussed their work which ranged from reporting and illustrating the commission in the press to live broadcasts and in-depth television documentaries.

“The TRC depends on the media to communicate its message to the nation,” says commissioner Denzil Potgieter.

“It’s the only way of involving the nation in healing and reconciliation.”

The SABC KwaZulu-Natal general manager, Khaba Mkhize, agrees that the media should foster reconciliation but Jane Taylor, the workshop facilitator and an academic from the University of the Western Cape, argues that the “repositioning the media as an agent of reconciliation” requires distance from a tradition of strong opposition which governed local media history.

TRC radio journalist and poet Antjie Samuel disagrees with the notion that journalists should indulge themselves in a reconciliatory role.

“We must get the truth out and let people decide,” she says.

The work of the media, including building the new South Africa by reflecting its complexity, could conflict with the commission’s statutory obligations, says one journalist while another argues that the media needs to be free to criticise the commission.

Few whites, however, are believed to be watching Max du Preez’s TRC Special Report. “They don’t want to deal with the truth,” says Jacques Pauw whose documentary on Eugene de Kock, Prime Evil, nevertheless attracted a large white viewership.

While researching in the corporation’s archives, Pauw found a 1987 interview featuring live footage of an Askari shot at Vlakplaas. “They [certain SABC journalists] denied its existence, but it’s clear that some SABC journalists had access to Vlakplaas as early as 1987,” he says.

Although Du Preez’s Special Report attracts one million (mostly black) viewers, and scores the highest audience rating for a current affairs programme, it is under financial threat and has been cut by a third. “There’s no money from government. Nobody is funding the programme,” says Pauw.

Government funding promised for coverage of the truth commission has not materialised, confirms another corporation radio journalist. Cut-backs has included the recent scrapping of the outside broadcast points, and victims’ and perpetrators’ own voices no longer appear on news bulletins. SABC Radio’s truth commission team could also face disbanding, says SABC radio journalist Kenneth Makatees.

As a result of complaints by radio listeners who objected to hearing truth commission-related stories, commision stories are also sometimes now slotted into “weird” times, like after 8pm when most of the farmers are no longer listening, says Makatees who believes this is subtle censorship. Clive Emden, of the Freedom of Expression Institute, said the public interest was being subverted by the old guard within the SABC’s establishment.

A communiqu on the financial cut-backs was drafted for submission to the SABC’s board. A monthly meeting between the truth commission and the media was also planned.

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