Stratcom's bogus news agency rings

no bells

Ann Eveleth

The bogus news agency which former Strategic Communications (Stratcom) operative Michael Bellingan confessed to setting up in the 1980s appears to have made few ripples in the media world.

The agency is named as the Pan African News Agency (Pana) in an amnesty application handed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 by Bellingan’s erstwhile associate, former security branch warrant officer Paul Erasmus.

The Mail & Guardian obtained a copy of Erasmus’s application this week and found the answer to the question which had been puzzling journalists since Bellingan testified before the commission’s Khotso House hearings three weeks ago. But the name of the agency rang few bells with journalists, suggesting it was singularly ineffective as a means of intelligence gathering or disinformation.

Bellingan told the commission the security branch set up an “alternative, left-wing media agency” which paid unsuspecting journalists and photographers to write stories and take photographs that were never published but instead ended up in security police intelligence files.

“The community organisations and frontline states fell for it hook, line and sinker. The journalists imagined they were sending news and photographs overseas, but in fact their reports went no further than our files,” said Bellingan. He refused to name the agency, but told the commission it had operated out of offices opposite Khotso House.

Erasmus has applied for amnesty for his role in setting up Pana with Bellingan in October 1985. His role included “forgery of receipts and documentation, including passport applications, in order to create Pana”, according to the application.

Erasmus spent 16 years in the security branch before he left the force for health reasons in 1993 and spilled the beans on the dirty tricks of FW de Klerk’s government to the Goldstone commission. He went public with a series of exposs published by the M&G in 1995.

Erasmus confirmed this week he and Bellingan had set up the phony news agency with money from Stratcom, the main covert network the apartheid state employed against its opponents in the liberation movements. He said Bellingan had subsequently moved to Stratcom head office and had taken the Pana project with him.

“[Pana] was a false-flag operation. The people involved in it didn’t know they were working for the police,” said Erasmus, who declined to name the journalists allegedly involved in the “left-wing” news agency.

But prominent journalists from the 1980s this week said they either had no recollection of such an agency, or only vaguely remembered a “bogus” agency which never gained the trust of their organisations.

Former Weekly Mail co-editors Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim recalled “approaches” from organisations they viewed with suspicion. Manoim said the name Pana rang a bell, but could not think of a single credible journalist connected with it.

Former Rand Daily Mail editor Raymond Louw, who edited his newsletter, Southern Africa Report, at the time of Pana’s alleged birth, said: “The only Pana I knew in those days operated from Dakar and was funded by the Organisation of African Unity. I don’t know of any other Pana that operated in South Africa ... and certainly not one that would’ve had any links with the South African government.”

“I think [the former security branch] are now trying to create the impression they ran a massive disinformation campaign. There were spies in newsrooms, but most of them tried to keep their noses clean so they could continue spying,” added Louw.

Pana is one of two failed media experiments featured in Erasmus’s application. The second is a 1989-1990 newsletter called The Missive.

The Pana operation is one of 87 different categories of offences for which Erasmus is seeking amnesty.

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