Naspers in the dock

Beeld journalists are strongly in favour of=20 testifying before the truth commission, but=20 management does not want to know, writes=20 Hazel Friedman

With only 17 days to go before the media=20 are called before the truth commission,=20 journalists at Beeld – South Africa’s=20 largest Afrikaans-speaking daily newspaper=20 – have urged editor Johan de Wet to testify=20 before the commission. A letter signed=20 recently by at least 50 journalists,=20 including senior reporters and members of=20 the so-called hoofredaksie, follows a=20 recent statement by Ton Vosloo, executive=20 chair of Nasionale Pers, that the company=20 was not responsible for abuse of human=20 rights under apartheid and therefore did=20 not have to testify.=20

Vosloo also said he could not speak on=20 behalf of the various editors of newspapers=20 in the Nasionale Pers stable due to the=20 editorial freedom they enjoyed. But Beeld=20 editor De Wet had previously indicated his=20 willingness to testify.

Staffers from other publications under=20 Naspers, such as Huisgenoot, have also come=20 out in support of the commission. City=20 Press which is also owned by Nationale Pers=20 has refused to comment. But City Press=20 staffers have confirmed that in June this=20 year, Vosloo approached City Press Editor=20 in Chief Khulu Sibiya to join Naspers in=20 making submissions to the commission.=20 Sibiya rejected Vosloo’s motion because of=20 the strong stand the black weekly newspaper=20 had taken against apartheid.

“Journalists have threatened to resign if=20 Beeld does not take the responsible route,”=20 says a Beeld staffer who wishes to remain=20 anonymous. “Both veteran and new reporters=20 feel strongly about the fact that Beeld=20 subtly supported the abuse of human rights=20 under apartheid. A commission submission=20 could contribute towards eradicating the=20 perception that Beeld is a conservative=20 National Party paper.”

Since its inception in 1974, Beeld has=20 straddled the terrain of conservatism and=20 enlightenment. Initially it was in direct=20 competition with Die Transvaler and=20 Hoofstad. In the past 10 years, it has=20 taken a definite swing left, particularly=20 in relation to its sister paper in Cape=20 Town, Die Burger. The latter actively=20 supports the NP policies of Western Cape=20 premier Hernus Kriel, former deputy vice- president FW de Klerk’s likely successor as=20 party leader, whereas Beeld supports the=20 more progressive policies of NP renegade=20 Roelf Meyer. Beeld has been labelled a=20 communist paper by extreme right-wing=20 groups. De Klerk has even accused Beeld of=20 being pro-African National Congress.=20

This perception contradicts the part Beeld=20 and other Afrikaans newspapers owned by=20 Naspers played in supporting NP policies=20 during apartheid. For example, articles=20 published in Beeld during the 1986 forced=20 incorporation of Moutse into KwaNdebele,=20 were supportive of Imbokotho – the secret=20 police employed by the corrupt homeland=20 government – in their efforts to stamp out=20 ANC comrades who resisted the=20 incorporation.

One of the problems Beeld faces in=20 appearing before the truth commission is=20 that the commission covers the period 1960=20 to 1994. Beeld was only launched in 1974=20 and De Wet has only been editor since 1996.=20

In an editorial written in December 1996,=20 De Wet stressed that the media could not=20 exclude itsel from the commission process.=20 But he added that he could speak neither on=20 behalf of Beeld for the period being=20 covered, nor on behalf of the rest of the=20 Naspers editors.

It is known that Naspers management is=20 virulently against testifying. And=20 according to insiders, De Wet is attempting=20 to appease his opponents in management=20 while maintaining his position. Sources say=20 at a bosberaad held two weeks ago at=20 Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, De Wet – backed=20 by his two deputy editors Tim du Plessis=20 and Arrie Rossouw – again put Beeld’s case=20 to senior management in a private=20 discussion. Again management expressed=20 their opposition to De Wet’s proposal. The=20 opinion was also expressed that the=20 commission had been discredited.=20

Naspers is currently undergoing shifts in=20 its upper management echelons, raising=20 questions as to whether the changes are=20 linked in some way to the issue of the=20 commission. Deputy editor of Beeld, Du=20 Plessis is going to Die Burger and the=20 editor of Rapport, Isak de Villiers, is=20 retiring to be replaced by Chris Moolman,=20 current deputy editor of Die Burger. Ton=20 Vosloo has been appointed non-executive=20 chair of Naspers.

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