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ANC Has Uneasy Media Relationship

May 7, 1999

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ Famed for tough talk and fervent anti-government views, radio host Martin Jordison does not mince words when discussing his firing.

Management at Cape Talk radio axed the morning talk show host last month a day after confronting him with a critical letter from a senior African National Congress official.

``I see the letter as a threat _ a threat to freedom of speech in South Africa,″ Jordison said ``It is a massive, massive alarm bell for South Africans.″

Though the ruling party insists it did not request Jordison’s dismissal and Cape Talk says he was let go for commercial reasons, the controversy is the latest in a series of incidents raising fears the ANC is seeking to control the media.

With June 2 national elections approaching, opposition parties claim the ANC may be emboldened to limit media freedom if, as expected, it wins an overwhelming victory.

Dene Smuts, a lawmaker with the small, mostly white Democratic Party, believes the ANC intimidated Jordison’s bosses.

``Can anyone doubt that the ANC will curtail free speech rights once it has a two-thirds majority when it behaves like this now?″ she asked.

Jordison, who has since joined the right-wing Federal Alliance party, said the ANC’s attitude could be compared to Zimbabwe’s government, which has arrested and tortured journalists critical of President Robert Mugabe’s rule.

But ANC officials deny the party has an uneasy relationship with journalists.

``Every journalist has a right to their own political views,″ said Cameron Dugmore, the ANC spokesman who wrote the letter complaining about Jordison. ``But it is an issue whether they have a right to churn out party political propaganda on the air.″

Media observers have expressed concern about other incidents as the election campaign heats up. Most controversial was an ANC statement accusing reporters of conspiring with senior ANC official Mathews Phosa to sabotage a rival’s bid for the party’s deputy presidency.

Using ominous language, the statement said it knew the names of journalists involved. ``They will be spoken to individually by the ANC,″ it continued.

``That was particularly intimidating and it was not acceptable,″ said Laura Pollecutt, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute.

Media watchers are also worried that the state broadcaster South African Broadcasting Corp. may be airing coverage in favor of the ruling party.

``It is not as serious as one might think, but there seems to be some sort of leaning towards the ANC,″ said William Bird, senior researcher with the Media Monitoring Project set up to analyze election coverage.

That impression was reinforced when SABC suddenly fired award-winning journalist Max du Preez. Though there was no suggestion the ANC was involved, the outspoken du Preez alleged his firing showed SABC’s top officials _ many of them ANC supporters _ could not tolerate dissent.

However, some observers think the ANC’s sensitivity toward the media is partly explained _ and even to an extent justified _ by past experience.

During the fight against white rule, the SABC acted as a mouthpiece for the apartheid state and most South African newspapers also repeated the government line that the ANC was a terrorist organization.

``During the years of apartheid, mainstream newspapers were not sympathetic to the ANC,″ Pollecutt said. ``They reflected white politics and white concerns.″

Criticizing the media as dominated by whites bent on preserving past privileges has been a common theme in major ANC speeches since it won power in 1994′s all-race elections, which ended apartheid.

When President Nelson Mandela stepped down as ANC leader at the end of 1997, he attacked the media as controlled by white bosses.

``The matter has become perfectly clear that the bulk of the mass media in our country has set itself up as a force opposed to the ANC,″ he said.

Last year, in response to complaints by two black professional bodies, the state-sponsored Human Rights Commission launched a probe into racism in the media.

Findings are due out in August, but project leader Claudia Braude said the media did appear to cover stories in a racially unbalanced way, with crimes hitting whites getting a high profile coverage while crimes against blacks were ignored.

``I think those statements (made by Mandela) were completely reasonable,″ she said.

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