Tensions of a Free Press: South Africa After Apartheid

By Sean Jacobs

A paper by Sean Jacobs, fall 1998 fellow, examines changes in South Africa’s news media in the 1990s. Television and radio, long dominated by the state, had a history of bias in favor of South Africa’s apartheid government. The first democratic elections in 1994 revealed how far removed from the electorate the media was, argues Jacobs – the majority of mainstream newspapers endorsed the Democratic Party, which only received 2 percent of the vote. The government was overwhelmingly black-led, while the media was still largely white, despite attempts to change ownership, management, personnel patterns, and news focuses. This paper focuses on tensions that arose out of the changes in the print media after 1994, and how these changes affect the debate on the role of the press after apartheid. To examine these issues this study adopts a case-study approach, analyzing debate over the coverage of arms sales by a South African company, Denel, to Saudi Arabia in mid-summer 1997. The conflict over government secrecy and press freedom surrounding this case illustrated overt racial tension between the press and the government, argues Jacobs.

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