The South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) on Friday called on those with concrete evidence against journalists who may have worked to support the apartheid state's security establishment to bring it forward to substantiate their claims.
This comes after claims made by late anti-apartheid icon Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Pascale Lamche's award-winning documentary, Winnie, in which she claimed that some journalists were paid by the apartheid government to fabricate stories to tarnish her image and legacy.
In the documentary, Vic McPherson, then director of apartheid government's Covert Strategic Communications (StratCom), revealed the details of Operation Romulus – a counter-revolutionary strategy that had Madikizela-Mandela as its primary target.
StratCom was apartheid government's a four-year plan to undermine and weaken the African National Cngress (ANC) and its allies in the build-up to the first democratic elections in 1994.
In a statement, Sanef said that it had noted the debate about the role of the media in peddling falsehoods and discrediting certain anti-apartheid activists.
"In the course of the debate about her legacy and experience as a freedom fighter, some journalists have been accused of being spies, or rogue operators that tried to tarnish her name by publishing stories planted by the apartheid government," it said.
"Sanef fully acknowledges the brutality of the apartheid regime and its misinformation campaigns. Given this context of lies and propaganda, we believe it is critical that concrete evidence is brought forward to substantiate claims that specific journalists supported the apartheid state’s security establishment."
Sanef said that in the absence of any such evidence, the circulation of unsubstantiated rumours is irresponsible, dangerous and extremely damaging to media freedom and the media environment as a whole.
"Further, we believe it puts journalists at serious risk of physical harm and having their credibility unnecessarily questioned.Those who have concrete evidence of any such wrongdoing by journalists working in South Africa at the height of apartheid should come forward," Sanef said.
"We would like to call for cool heads, so that we can have a sober debate about ways to cherish Mama Winnie’s legacy in building a truly democratic nation."