Mail & Guardian

Editors `bent over backwards' for

29 Nov 1996 00:00 | Staff Reporter


The truth commission has been asked to investigate the role English-language papers played in apartheid, reports Rehana Rossouw

ENGLISH-language newspapers might have been regarded as liberal during the apartheid era, but some of their editors had "bent over backwards" to accommodate police in suppressing the truth about human rights abuses, journalists claimed this week.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Desmond Tutu said the media should make a submission to the commission on its role during the apartheid conflict. The truth commission has asked the Freedom of Expression Institute to launch an inquiry into the issue, and a meeting is being held next month to lay the basis for the investigation.

Tutu's comments followed testimony by journalist Tony Weaver at a hearing into the killing of the "Guguletu Seven".

Weaver was charged with contravening the Police Act after the Cape Times published an article in which witnesses alleged police killed seven men in cold blood on March 3 1986.

A truth commission investigation has unearthed startling new evidence about the deaths of Mandla Mxinwa, Zola Swelani, Christopher Piet, Zabonke Konile, Zanisile Mjobo, Jabulani Miya and Themba Mlifi. Two inquests into their deaths cleared the police of culpability.

Weaver said his trial was an attempt by police to restrict media coverage of their activities. He was acquitted after witnesses and forensic experts recreated what had happened to the Guguletu Seven.

Weaver resigned from the Cape Times in 1987. He told the truth commission he had since been informed that the then managing director of Times Media Limited, Stephen Mulholland, had tried to get him dismissed "because he perceived me as being too radical".

Mulholland had also been instrumental in the dismissal of Cape Times editor, Tony Heard, for the same reason, Weaver said.

"Elements of the media are guilty of collusion with the apartheid regime, either by remaining silent or actively suppressing the truth," he told the commission.

Weaver said while he was a correspondent in Namibia, the editor of the Daily Dispatch refused to use his articles because he used the term "guerrilla" rather than "terrorist", and because he was regarded as being pro-Swapo. Former Sunday Times editor Tertius Myburgh didn't use his articles for the same reasons.

"Mulholland and his stable of editors, the so-called liberal English press, bent over backwards to accommodate versions of the truth put out by the police and the National Party," Weaver said after the hearing.

"During that period journalists were operating not only in the milieu of a hostile police and government, but also in the employ of a hostile management.

"An investigation into the role of the media should also examine pro-government newspapers and the SABC which aided and abetted apartheid.

"It was widely rumoured that an editor of a major English opposition newspaper was an agent of the National Intelligence Service. This must also be investigated."

Heard said he believed more could be done to examine the media's role: "If necessary, the commission should subpoena newspaper managements and call them to account." He associated himself fully with the "spirit" of Weaver's comments to the commission.

`When we ran the Guguletu Seven story, I was asked by people in the media how I could accuse the police of murder," Heard said. "We were journalists who were simply doing our jobs.

"We all should account to the commission for our inclusions and omissions. However brave we were on occasion, there were times that we ran like hell.

"What the media did could not be classified as a gross violation of human rights, but we certainly made it possible for those violations to happen - more than the medical or legal professions. When people say today they did not know what happened, we are the reason for their ignorance."

Heard said he did things as an editor he is not proud of, like handing over photographs to the police of students protesting at the University of the Western Cape in the 1980s. Although he destroyed some of the photographs which clearly showed students' faces, he complied with a court order to deliver the rest.

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