Probing the media

The HRC said it would base its interpretation of racism on "internationally accepted definitions" adopted by the UN in 1965.

ANNOUNCING THE TERMS of reference for its investigation into racism in the media last month, the Human Rights Commission said it will base its interpretation of racism on “the internationally accepted definitions” adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1965 and by a general conference of Unesco in 1978. In case readers do not have these definitions handy we set them out below.

Besides inviting written submissions and responses from interested parties, the inquiry will undertake research and hold public hearings to which the HRC will invite people to give testimony or make oral submissions. Witnesses can be subpoenaed and compelled to answer all questions put to them in hearings that will be “inquisitorial rather than adversarial in nature”. It also has powers of search, seizure and arrest, which HRC chairman Barney Pityana warns it will not hesitate to use on anyone refusing to co-operate. Refocus hopes that the commission will note the proviso in Article 5 of the Unesco declaration below that draws attention to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “particularly the principle of freedom of expression”.

While the World Association of Newspapers has written to President Mandela expressing concern about the inquiry’s unacceptable infringement of the freedom of the press, the stance of the executive committee of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) is disappointing. After talks with Pityana and his commissioners, Sanef said that its understanding was that the inquiry could “contribute to the elimination of racism in South African society” and that there “may have been a misunderstanding on the reason for the inquiry”. Pityana has interpreted this as heartening support from Sanef and committed the commission to consultation with all stakeholders in the media industry.

It is ironic that the Sanef executive should support an inquiry conducted with powers of search, seizure and arrrest just as the ministries of justice and safety and security are about to agree not to force editors and journalists to disclose sources and other information until certain safeguarding procedures have been complied with. It is even more ironic that this should happen while three senior Cape Town editors continue to defy a magistrate’s order that they supply information for the inquest into the death of Cape gangster Arasat Staggie.

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination adopted by the UN General Assembly. Resolution 2106 A December 21, 1965

Part I, Article I
In this Convention, the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field
of public life.

Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation at its 20th session November 27, 1978

Article 2
2. Racism includes racist ideologies, prejudiced attitudes, discriminatory behaviour, structural arrangements and institutionalised practices resulting in racial inequality as well as the fallacious notion that discriminatory relations between groups are morally and scientifically justifiable; it is reflected in discriminatory provisions in legislation or regulations and discriminatory practices as well as anti-social beliefs and acts; it hinders the development of its victims, perverts those who practise it, divides nations internally, impedes international co-operation and gives rise to political tensions between peoples; it is contrary to the fundamental principles of international law and, consequently, seriously disturbs international peace and security.

Article 5
3. The mass media and those who control or serve them, as well as all organised groups within national communities, are urged — with due regard to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly the principle of freedom of expression — to promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among individuals and groups and to contribute to the eradication of racism, racial discrimination and racial prejudice, in particular by refraining from presenting a stereotyped, partial, unilateral or tendentious picture of individuals and of various human groups. Communication between racial and ethnic groups must be a reciprocal process, enabling them to express themselves and to be fully heard without let or hindrance. The mass media should therefore be freely receptive to ideas of individuals and groups, which facilitate such communication.