JOHANNESBURG September 15 1997- SAPA

TRUTH COMMISSION HEARS HOW SABC PROMOTED APARTHEID

Admissions that the SA Broadcasting Corporation promoted apartheid emerged at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing on Monday, along with denials of indcommission is sitting in Johannesburg to hear testimony on the media's role in the apartheid years.

While former SABC staff members, like television news editor Johan Pretorius, claimed the service minimised the effects of apartheid, others claimed it often exceeded the wishes of its apartheid bosses.

Pretorius cut an isolated figure as he took the stand and said he felt "very lonely" in appearing before the commission.

He said he felt a true understanding would be attained only if members of the SABC board were asked to testify.

He launched a scathing attack on one of the SABC's chief detractors, Media Monitoring Group head Professor Johan van Zyl.

Pretorius accused Van Zyl of using no methodology in his monitoring of the SABC coverage in the runup to the 1994 elections.

Van Zyl used his 30 minutes of testimony to illustrate how the SABC defended apartheid. He showed how television news wage of apartheid in the context of the cold war and the government's response to the supposed "total onslaught".

The total onslaught was the apartheid government's idea that the country was under threat both within and without.

He said the SABC had been a willing partner in the broadcasting of government propaganda and had often exceeded its political bosses' wishes.

Only images which positively portrayed the security forces were shown on television. This applied to news stories and programmes like Bridge 14, which gave a glowing account of the army's conflict with Cuban forces in Angola.

Van Zyl said conversely, only stories which depicted the government's foes as terrorists and communists were broadcast.

Pretorius claimed the effects of government interference would have been worse if it had not been for the efforts of SABC news staff. He claimed they found themselves in an untenable situation where politicians were directly interfering. Their job had been to manage such interference so as to minimise its impact.

Asked if, despite these efforts, the SABC still had been a propagandist, Pretorius said: "At certain times, definitely yes."

He said the issue had to be viewed in its historical context. He could see no difference between the appoinment of the SABC board by the National Party and the present system where former African National Congress members and cadres had been appointed by the present government.

Most SABC journalists were improperly trained, cutting back on their ability to manipulate their medium: "Many times, cock-ups rather than manipulation determined editorial content," Pretorius said.

SABC3 head Louis Raubenheimer admitted that SABC journalists were not well trained. He described how they became increasingly isolated as the liberation movement grew.

Their main sources of news were wire services and newspapers because SABC journalists did not have access to liberation movement sources. Raubenheimer was unable to explain why foreign broadcasting journalists working in South Africa were able to access such information.

Both he and Pretorius emphasised that SABC broadcast content was shaped largely by legislation, and by standing and day-to-day policy decisions. Much of this dedicated the SABC to toeing the government line because it forbade reporting the views of terrorist organisations or actions which could undermine a free-market economy.

Producer Bheki Khathide said the inadequate and resources given to black television producers had been aimed at ensuring white counterparts produced better products.

He said censorship was rife. Even though the SABC never showed images of township conflict, it did manage to record much of it, but the video tapes "never saw the light of day".

Former board members Professor Sampie Terreblanche, who resigned in protest in 1987, said the broadcaster was run "mafia-style" under former chief executive Piet Meyer.

Any resistance to his orders could only be undertaken within the confines of debate within the Broederbond and the National Party. Programmes promoting negotiations and the release of political leaders were only allowed after the debate had become acceptable within those two organisations, he said.

Terreblanche said he was a Broederbond member until 1989.

The Broederbond was a clandestine organisation which promoted the interests of Afrikaners and gave politicians political direction.

Terreblanche described how the propagandist role took off under former state president PW Botha's regime. The president's wife, Elize, often objected to SABC content and this was frequently addressed through direct intervention by former Foreign Affairs minister Pik Botha.

Former documentary department head Don Briscoe said he had made documentaries of the highest order and was convinced such a degree of professionalism would never be seen again.

He admitted that he often referred "sensitive" topics which cropped up in documentaries to higher authority. Editing was ordered by them, and never by himself, he said.

He had agreed to show the defence force in a positive light in two films he made because he had been warned of the total onslaught by army chiefs of staff during a briefing at their underground headquarters in Pretoria.


South African Press Association, 1996
This text is for information only and may not be published or reprinted without the permission of the South African Press Association