Forty years ago, at the first United Democratic Front (UDF) meeting here in Joburg, the launch of the regional executive, I was the only reporter present and my paper, the Rand Daily Mail, the only one to record this important moment. It says something about the media then that this was the case.
Being asked to speak recognises the role of the media in the Struggle to end apartheid and I thank you for that. I am going to talk about the role the media played in the 1980s, and what this tells us about the role it is or should be playing today.
Let me remind us of the emergency media regulations of the 1980s, a dense spider’s web of rules, regulations and punishments which dictated what journalists could or couldn’t do. We couldn’t write about or photograph any security force action. We could not report what the police were doing, nor the military, nor what was happening in prisons.
We could give no news on detainees or prisoners, of which there were many. We couldn’t report about unrest, protests or prohibited gatherings. You were on risky ground if you reported on peoples’ courts and street committees.
You certainly couldn’t write positively about banned organisations, like the ANC or PAC or Communist Party. Or quote the hundreds of banned people.
Maybe the most bizarre restriction was that newspapers could not have blank spaces or obliterations. That was because one of the ways we dealt with this censorship was to black out stuff we couldn’t report — so they banned the black lines.
You couldn’t encourage civil disobedience — of which there was plenty — a strike, boycott or stay away, though you had to guess when a strike became a strike or a stay away became just that. The law was deliberately vague so that a lot of the time you had to guess if it was legal or illegal. And if you guessed wrong, they could detain you, confiscate your newspaper, and you could face up to 10 years in prison.
Apart from the law, there was also extra-legal action: attacks on editors’ houses, petrol bombs at newspaper offices, sabotage of cars, and even assassination attempts on reporters.
In other words, to report on almost anything that was important at that time you had to take such a risk that many would tread cautiously. It was enforced self-censorship. Take note: this is what governments do when they are in danger of losing power.
Choosing the path of truth
There were two media responses to this: those who fell into line, avoided reporting this stuff and minimised their risks. And then we had the alternative press, the media which emerged in the 1980s with a different attitude and set of values. The alternative newspapers confronted censorship head-on.
We went out of our way to report this stuff, looked for gaps or ways around the law, using the vagueness, the grey areas of the law to tell people what was happening, sometimes requiring one to read between the lines. If we couldn’t report someone being detained, we would say they were taken away by unknown men.
And sometimes we broke the law to report what was happening. The alternative press — which I think you can hear was more in tune with the spirit of the UDF and the popular uprising of the time — came about precisely because we needed to go where the mainstream media could not. It was an extraordinary time and it required extraordinary journalism.
Looking back, I think we can observe that a good newspaper is not just a conveyer of information, but it can link and enable a group of people to become a community; it can provide not just data, but also hope and support and ideas and comradery.
The challenges the news media faces now are very different. Our news media, like our community, is now so fragmented and is struggling just to survive. Thankfully we now have the protection of the Constitution and — usually — the courts, but we still have to protect our colleagues from attacks, threats and harassment.
Reaffirming the role of media
There are some things worth reminding ourselves about the journalism of the 1980s. Firstly, we were fiercely independent. We were there not to serve a political party, or a faction, but in pursuit of certain fundamental shared values: telling the truth, fighting racism, putting human rights at the core of our journalism.
Our primary aim was not profit, but service to the readers and the public. Our role was to uncover what those with power and wealth did not want us to cover, to ask the hard questions and probe beneath the surface. To give voice to those very voices that those in power wanted to silence.
Today I am grateful that we see powerful investigative journalism, and we owe a major debt to investigative reporters who fearlessly expose what some want to hide and who stand up to intimidation, harassment, and threats in many ways reminiscent of the dark days of censorship. We must support them and make sure they have the space and protection to continue their work.
But we have to ask if our mainstream media — which is a shadow of what it was 10 years ago — is able to link together this nation and help build it as a community with a shared set of values, or whether it again falls short.
We need to remind ourselves of those core values of great journalism, relevant then and today: independence, non-racism, putting human rights and public service at the core of our journalism and giving space to voices of dissent, difference and diversity. These are the values I believe we are here today to reassert. And these are the values at the core of good journalism.
Forty years ago, times were tough, very tough. Under the harshest of conditions, the UDF brought together the widest range of people around a shared vision and common principles, creating a community in which personal ambition and differences of opinion gave way to shared goals. It was a difficult time, but it was also an exhilarating time.
Today, we find ourselves again lost in the wilderness, uncertain, stumbling around, searching for things to do and reasons to hope. Worse, now we are fragmented. We don’t have that unity of purpose that the UDF gave us.
Today, let us remember how the strength of that combined effort was enough to bring down the strongest of military regimes. And let’s remember how good journalism can bolster that. DM
This is an edited version of Prof Anton Harber’s address to the UDF 40th anniversary gathering in the Johannesburg City Hall on Sunday 20 August 2023.