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Storey compares South Africa's media repression and the churches responses

With access to media outside the United States part of the year, Peter Storey wonders about the credibility of U.S. media.

He told about 200 people gathered at Central United Methodist Church for The Fig Tree’s benefit breakfast and Faith in Action Dialogue during June that he and his wife, Elizabeth, spend extra money in the United States to have cable so they can watch the Canadian Broadcasting and British Broadcasting news. 

“Otherwise we feel we are living in a news blackout,” he said.  “In South Africa, we learn more from our media about world news than U.S. media report.

Peter Storey

Peter Storey

“Networks want no more than 12 percent of evening news about the world.  So American TV viewers think 88 percent of what happens in the world happens in the United States,” said the former Methodist bishop of South Africa, who edited a Methodist newspaper, Dimension, and wrote a column on faith and values in a daily post-apartheid newspaper.

While some U.S. newspapers cover the world effectively, most Americans read local papers that lack international news, he said. 

“Another problem is the takeover of many local papers by conglomerates, obsessed with the bottom line.  So people follow the money, chasing Michael Jackson’s trial rather than other stories.”

Now many newsmakers and news writers have become celebrities and are now part of the ruling class, Peter added.

“Journalists used to be scruffy, low-income people, just making ends meet.  Celebrity journalists are millionaires.  So don’t expect stories from them to reflect the struggle of people on the margins,” he said.  “Media reflect interests of the powerful, people less concerned about economic and political justice. The media were meant to hold the powerful accountable, but they now are the powerful with no one to hold them accountable.

“In South Africa, we had a tradition of advocacy journalism, which held the state accountable,” he continued, “so no one in South Africa can claim not to have known what was happening.  We had journalists of courage and integrity who, until the state silenced them, raised the issues.”

One by one, syndicated papers under apartheid were brought to heel by: 1) pressure from advertisers, 2) a bullying government with 90 laws about what could or could not be said and 3) competing government-sponsored publications drawing advertisers with false claims.

“How to get around the 90 laws was a trick of the trade,” Peter said.   

Each month, he knew he might go to jail if he printed some reports. Newspapers were co-opted or silenced. The government owned the TV station.  That brought the birth of an alternative media.

Old staffers of the Rand Daily Mail—driven out of business by “competition”—started the Weekly Mail to continue their commitment to tell the truth.  Then security officers grabbed the first copy off the press to try to ban it, Peter said.

Religious and ecumenical newspapers also made a contribution.    Dimension, which reached 21,000 readers, resulted in the Methodist Church’s being a banned organization for 10 years in the Transvaal. 

“Many small papers had impact far beyond their circulation,” he said.

Peter told of a top journalist from The Star newspaper in Johannesburg.  He was irritated to be assigned to cover the South Africa Council of Churches, because the church was in the foreground of the struggle for liberation. 

Later that reporter said he heard more sense, saw more people acting for transformation and found more hope there  than at any political conference. 

He rejoined the church and fought to hold the religion beat, because he realized that was where the true news was, Peter said.  He later became the press person for Desmond Tutu and traveled with him.

Peter told of a meeting with former President P.W. Botha, who questioned him and other religious leaders who went to confront him. Peter advised: “Mr. President, you need to listen carefully to what we church leaders are telling you, because we are where the people are—the little people, the suffering people, the people bruised and broken by your policies—and because we are not coming because we want your job.”

Peter knows that when people and movements of faith let beliefs shape not only what they say but also what they do, that becomes news, because “it is transformational in a world that talks about transformation but hopes to high heaven that it will never happen.”

He also knows that, “when we tell stories from God’s little people with respect for their dignity, future, rights and needs, and when we do so for the sake of truth and justice, presidents should listen.”

After apartheid, Peter began writing a column on faith and values in a new national newspaper.  When asked how he became a columnist, he said he just went to the editor and asked what news he intended to include.  Peter told the editor that more people were active in churches than would ever play one low-profile sport the editor planned to cover. 

“I told him that there is need to tell how beliefs shape what people do and to offer alternatives to what media assume they need to do,” Peter said.


By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © September 2005