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“It was a question of surviving one day to the next”

June 5, 2015
Natasha Schmidt
8 min read
Joe Thloloe
Joe Thloloe
Student uprising,  June 16, 1976
Student uprising, June 16, 1976
Vice President Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, and FW de Klerk outside parliament as the country's first democratic parliament got underway, May 9 1994.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu was also present (back)
Vice President Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, and FW de Klerk outside parliament as the country's first democratic parliament got underway, May 9 1994. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was also present (back)
South African newspaper The Star on the 1994 election
South African newspaper The Star on the 1994 election
Protests against South Africa’s so-called secrecy law
Protests against South Africa’s so-called secrecy law

The Iranian government harasses, imprisons and tortures journalists on a daily basis. Why? For exercising their fundamental right to freedom of information and expression.

Journalism is not a Crime was set up to support these jailed journalists. The site, which is officially launched on June 9, documents cases where journalists are unfairly arrested, and aids reporters and their loved ones by providing legal and psychological help to those affected. 

As part of the launch of the campaign, IranWire spoke to Joe Thloloe, one of South Africa’s best-known anti-apartheid activists and journalists. As an activist for workers’ rights, he championed some of South Africa’s most vulnerable people. As a journalist, he raised awareness of some of the country’s most important issues and fought for free expression at every level. From the 1960s to the 1990s, he worked for a number of publications, including the World, the Rand Daily Mail, Drum, Post Transvaal and the Sowetan; in the 1990s, he headed up SABC TV news, and then News from 2001 to 2005.

Today he is Executive Director of the Press Council of South Africa, a body that mediates between the press and readers — whether it is politicians, businesses, or communities — who lodge complaints about editorial content. He talked to IranWire about his time in prison, what it was like to work in the Apartheid era, and his commitment to free expression.


Can you tell our readers a bit about how censorship worked in South Africa during Apartheid? What was your experience?

There was a whole minefield of security laws at that time, which made it very difficult. We had the Internal Security Act, the Terrorism Act, and a whole lot of other laws that were used against journalists. There was a time when each newsroom had lawyers on standby to advise on the legality of content. At the Sowetan, we gave a copy of our stories to lawyers so that they could advise on the best way of telling the story without falling foul of the law.

I’ll give you examples of my experiences with the security laws: in 1976, I was detained for almost six months, under what they called “preventative” detention. The orders that I received said that my presence in society was dangerous to the state and the security of society. I was locked up, detained at Modderbee Prison, a few kilometers east of Johannesburg.

The real reason for that detention was that after the uprising by students on June 16, 1976, the Union of Black Journalists asked journalists who saw what happened in Soweto on that day to give us first person accounts of what they saw. I was president of the union. The accounts were compiled in a publication called The Union of Black Journalists’ Bulletin. On the day it was printed and went out on to the street, police confiscated every copy they could lay their hands on. It became an offence to be found in possession of a copy of that publication. And then of course it led to our detention.

Another example: in February 1977, the police again came to detain me, this time under the Terrorism Act. This Act allowed for the interrogation of detainees by the police. Many died in the police cells during interrogation. They tortured us to make us admit to committing crimes against the state.


What were prison conditions like?

The first time I was detained it was almost like a holiday. We could get reading materials, we could get visitors, we had writing materials — so that was like a holiday behind bars!

In 1977, when they detained us again, we had no access to lawyers, no visitors. We were in solitary confinement. And the only people we could talk to were our jailers. That gave them the space to torture us. They took us to an interrogation center and tortured us, including electric shocks. It was absolute hell. What made it worse was that we were cut off from the world, we didn’t know what was happening outside, we didn’t know what was happening to our families. We were not allowed to read, we were not allowed to speak to anyone, we had contact with our jailers only.

It was a question of surviving from one day to the next. When we were not facing interrogations, we would run around the cell, and do other exercises to keep fit. And then wait for the next time for interrogations.


Can you talk about the banning orders against you?

In the 1980s, there were strikes throughout the country, including by the media. At the end, the leaders of the media strike — there were six of us — were given banning orders. In other words, we were stopped from entering any newspaper offices. It was an offence to quote anything we wrote. It was an offence for us to be anywhere other than Johannesburg city “for work” or in our homes in Soweto. We were under house arrest. I remember I had to be indoors by 6pm every day and could only emerge after 6 in the morning. At weekends we had to be indoors from 6 pm on Friday to 6 am on Monday. I was liable for arrest if the police found me outside my house at a time when I was supposed to be indoors. These banning orders were in place for three years.

At the time, publications were free to write about us and our circumstances, and they did — but they could not publish what we said or wrote.


Anti-apartheid campaigns were international, and there was much support from outside the country. Can you say what impact and effect this had on those working under repression in South Africa?

The international press communicated everything that was happening to us and what was happening in our society. We appreciated all the support we got from these overseas journalism and other organizations. It was this sort of support that led to the sanctions against South Africa — which ultimately led to the 1994 settlement [the official end of Apartheid]. The sanctions, the armed struggle by the liberation movements, the uprisings inside the country – all these combined put so much pressure on the South African government that it had to talk to the oppressed.


What was it like when South Africa transitioned to democracy?

For journalists, it was an exciting time. We had the front row to the miracle of liberation and could record it. I was the deputy editor of the Sowetan newspaper at the time and the sales figures we achieved in those months leading up to the 1994 elections have not been matched since. Readers avidly devoured all the information they could get.


What is the media environment like today?

Let me first say that the most exciting thing that happened during that period was when freedom of expression was included in the constitution, in the Bill of Rights. Today that freedom is guaranteed in the constitution. You still get politicians making noises about the media and threatening to act against them. But we tell them we will fight any action in the Constitutional Court — and the court will find in our favor.

So that is our protection: freedom of speech in the constitution.


You championed labor rights during Apartheid. What is the situation now? 

At present, labor rights are protected in the constitution, in the Bill of Rights. So as long as we are functioning openly, the unions have some weight. Some of the unions are allies of the ANC [African National Congress], and there are other unions that are not allied with the ANC. For workers, it’s probably the best time that they have had. The only problem is that some of these rights are leading to problems in the economy, disruptions to production and demands that employers cannot meet. I’m not too sure how these are going to be resolved.


South Africa’s so-called secrecy law was described as “belonging to the apartheid era” because it would allow authorities to jail journalists if they published “state secrets”. What was the mood like among journalists when the bill was tabled?

We opposed that law right from the time that it was first tabled. It’s been in the pipeline for quite a long time, four or five years — and every time we objected, they would amend it and bring another version forward. The current version, which is now in front of the president, is considerably better than anything that was put forth before. But it turns journalists who are in possession of so-called classified documents into criminals, and they can be locked up for up to 15 years or more. This is the provision we are still fighting against.

We have been saying to government: we understand why you need this law, but we believe that a public interest defence should be built into it. In other words, if I am found in possession of a classified document, as a journalist writing a story based on the document — say on corruption — then that defence should be sufficient for the courts.

The bill has been sitting on the president’s desk for signature for almost a year now, and he still hasn’t signed it. But if he does sign it in its present form, then the fight goes to the Constitutional Court.


This article was originally published to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, which takes place on May 3 each year. 

To learn more about issues affecting journalists in Iran please visit:


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