It is common knowledge that the Afrikaans press, the DR Church and the National Party were bedfellows.
Tobie Wiese, who reported on church matters in Die Burger, Beeld, Volksblad and Oosterlig between 1982 and 1986, says that it is important to remember the context of the times: “The DR Church helped design apartheid and afterwards justified it Biblically, but by the ’80s apartheid and the country were in serious trouble. The church, the National Party and Naspers started having second thoughts.
“Throughout this period the Naspers papers promoted the more enlightened thinking within the National Party and the church,” says Wiese.
“Some people will say that this boiled down to support for a kind of streamlined, less objectionable apartheid.
“Editors of the day disagree; in this way they prepared the whites for the unavoidable changes that had to come.”
Whatever the role of the Afrikaans press, the winds of political change seemed to drive the love boat on the rocks. The new, secular South Africa had dawned and it was not dependent on the National Party, the DR Church or the Afrikaans press.
The moderator of the DR Church, Piet Strauss, says that the church’s endeavours after 1994 were politically relegated to the periphery.
Wiese, too, says that the church was left powerless in the wake of political reform and of the resultant, inevitable divorce between church and state.
“This naturally also brought its influence to bear on the DR Church’s relationship with the media. Previously a Moderator would easily have called the editor and complained about something, but I doubt that this still happens. A Ã¢Â€Â˜dominee’ no longer represents a power block.”
Not a single Afrikaans newspaper will today admit to aligning itself with a political party. Even so, the separation between the Afrikaans press and the DR Church is not all that clear.
The three reporters on church matters interviewed for this article maintain that the DR Church gets the most exposure in their respective publications. The fact that the DR Church is the biggest Afrikaans church to some measure explains the extent of coverage enjoyed by this church.
Marlene Malan, a former reporter on church affairs for Rapport, says that “regrettably… other churches and faiths received altogether too little attention”.
Johannes de Villiers, who previously reported on church matters for Die Burger, says that he too tried to give more exposure to other churches and faiths, but that “the DR Church sucks one in”.
He says the fact that the DR Church is “organisationally excellent and transparent”, ensures greater exposure.
Die Burger, which has many Muslim readers and also daily features a verse from the Koran, covers but few of this faith’s news events.
“This is simply because it is so difficult to report on the Muslims. It is a complex structure and the people don’t talk easily,” says De Villiers.
Beeld reporter Neels Jackson counters, saying that his coverage of the respective churches is cyclical, such as when general synod sittings are held. This also depends on church cultures. “Some churches find it more difficult than others to talk about internal debates,” he says.
Not one of the reporters could with certainty state the precise demographic composition of their readers in terms of faith and church denomination. Peet Kruger, editor of Beeld, says that they report on something “because our readers like it”.
“We often see this in the reactions to religion-related stories on our letters page,” he says. Kruger says that the interest is specifically in Christianity, but “denominational affiliation is less important than ever before”.
Lumping the Afrikaans press and the DR Church together is, however, problematic.
The three reporters on church affairs agree that there are different schools of thought within the DR Church. The same applies to the Afrikaans press.
Strauss maintains that some reporters are “more unbiased than others”. It is also evident that reporters have different views on some of the issues.
Jackson, for instance, says at one stage, Malan gave much prominence to certain streams within the DR Church.
“My feeling was that one should evaluate the different voices in the church according to their weight when deciding how much attention to devote to them.”
Malan, again, says that many people view Beeld “as a kind of mouthpiece of the DR Church top management. And when there actually are reports critical of the DR Church, they are extremely careful, lame and meek.”
Says Strauss, “I think that the relationship between prominent figures in the DR Church and the media have generally improved substantially during recent years.”
He believes that the relationship between the church and the Afrikaans press “must be based on mutual understanding and respect”.
De Villiers says that the relationship between the Afrikaans press and the DR Church was at a stage rather awkward, but agrees that it has improved. “I think the media must be more sympathetic towards the DR Church and its problems.”
Malan, however, maintains that she suffered much as a reporter on church matters in that her relationship with certain dignitaries turned sour.
“I was often rebuked, not because of false reporting, but because I had dared to give a voice to the underdogs.
“It is still mainly the voices of those at the top that are heard in the press. I would say that the relationship has actually changed somewhat (from the previous dispensation), yet not sufficiently,” she says.
The relationship between the Afrikaans press and the DR Church is a work in progress, it seems.
!_LT_EMThis article first appeared in Stellenbosch Media Forum, a publication of the B.Phil. students of the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch.!_LT_/EM
!_LT_EMHerman Scholtz is a former editor of!_LT_/EM Stellenbosch Media Forum!_LT_EM. He has since joined!_LT_/EM Beeld !_LT_EMas a cadet journalist.!_LT_/EM
This article was published in The Media magazine (October 2008).