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Censorship: It’s Very Hard to Do, Even in South Africa

3 minute read

In 1951 South Africa’s Nationalist Party government ordered a sweeping investigation of the press. Party leaders were annoyed by the tendency of the country’s English-language papers, which predominate, to criticize nearly everything the government did. A seven-member press commission was appointed to study such unseemly journalistic behavior, and it was granted a free hand and, ultimately, $500,000 to do the job. Last week, more than 13 years later, the commission finally dropped its findings before Parliament.

Dropped was the right word. The report ran to nine thick volumes, 4,262 pages, and more than 1,000,000 words. Obviously, the commissioners had taken their assignment seriously. One of them had died during the long labor, and five had been replaced. The commission had sifted through truckloads of press dispatches, and had exhausted seven secretaries in reaching its conclusions, which added up to an unpleasant surprise. What the commission recommended was nothing short of absolute government control over all press copy leaving South Africa.

Unscrupulously Tendentious. The report proposed registration of all foreign correspondents. It also recommended a Parliament-appointed press council with power to censor all outgoing copy and to levy unlimited—and unappealable—fines against correspondents whose stories failed to meet the government’s standards of good journalism.

What those standards were the report made exhaustively clear. Every dispatch examined during the years of inquiry—billions of words in all—was meticulously measured against the commission’s four hand-picked news classifications: very bad, bad, faulty and good. Hardly any got a passing score. The proportion of “scandalous lies” in correspondence that got out of the country was put at 90% .

Copy sent to the New York Times and TIME was indicted jointly as “inaccurate, frequently dishonest, overpartisan and hostile to South Africa and whites particularly the Afrikaner and the Nationalist Party.” Times Correspondent C. S. Sulzberger was rated “100% very bad.” Reuters, Ltd., the British wire service, was found guilty of “deliberately hiding the illiteracy and semibarbarism of the mass of the native people.” United Press International transmissions rated no higher: “Blindly prejudiced, unscrupulously tendentious.” Associated Press reports “had the appearance of having been made for the purpose of conducting a campaign against South Africa and for use in journals opposed to South Africa, its government and those supporting its traditional race policy.”

Verbose Irrelevance. Such overblown nonsense was greeted by jeers from the opposition bench in Parliament. But even Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd himself could not have been entirely pleased. He had, after all, expected something else: a hatchet job on his press critics at home. Verwoerd had not asked for a broadside against the foreign press, nor had he requested concrete proposals of any sort.

It was all extremely embarrassing, as a few bold voices noted as soon as the mocking laughter died. “For verbose irrelevance,” said the Johannesburg Star, “the Press Commission’s report has no equal in South Africa, and probably few equals anywhere.” Observed the Rand Daily Mail, another English-language daily: “This report, read as it stands, will do more damage to South Africa’s reputation overseas than 500 of the press messages which it condemns so vigorously.” The only foe of apartheid in Parliament added what could serve handsomely as the last word. Said Mrs. Helen Suzman, member for the country’s Progressive Party (TIME, April 17): “There is nothing more calculated than this report to make South Africa the laughingstock of the civilized world.”

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