18/04/2018 15:20 SAST | Updated 18/04/2018 16:51 SAST

Senior Journalists Call For Transparency On Stratcom Allegations

Mondli Makhanya and Mahlatse Mahlase call for transparency in any probe into allegations of so-called "apartheid spies" in journalism.

The former head of Stratcom [Covert Strategic Communication] during the apartheid era, Vic McPherson, has caused quite a stir with his allegation that 40 journalists were indirectly or directly working for the apartheid government.

McPherson was featured in the highly acclaimed "Winnie" documentary by French filmmaker Pascale Lamche, in which the late struggle icon told her story in her own words – a film that has opened up old wounds following her death.

McPherson spoke casually about how the apartheid government infiltrated newsrooms and had journalists under its command to discredit Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and other black leaders. ''I already had about 40 journalists working directly or indirectly for me, so through them I could have specific reports and it would be front page,'' he said. The disinformation project was named "Operation Romulus", which McPherson said was directly approved by then-state president PW Botha.

A clip from the documentary went viral on social media, and was then linked to a 2017 interview that HuffPost conducted with the struggle veteran at her home in Soweto. The merging of these video clips led to a conversation surrounding the so-called "Stratcom 40", putting three senior journalists in the spotlight.

Senior newshounds like Mondli Makhanya and Sanef's Mahlatse Mahlase have rubbished these claims, saying they have not been tested at all.

The allegations have led to questions about the credibility of former Stratcom head McPherson. "A lot of people who were there at the time have questioned his credibility in terms of the information that he has brought forward,'' said Mahlase, and because of this considerable doubt about the source of this potentially damning information, the institution has called for concrete evidence.

''I do not think that we should take what he has said as fact, unless it is actually corroborated," Mahlase added. "It has to be corroborated with concrete evidence. That is what we have been calling for. We find it quite alarming and quite dangerous that people's names have been mentioned without any concrete evidence.''

City Press Editor Makhanya does not understand the focus on the media industry, because in his opinion there were "alleged spies" in all spheres of society. ''If you disagreed with someone, it was very easy to label somebody as a spy," he said. "It was very easy to attach suspicion to somebody, as a way of dealing with somebody at that particular point – and I think If we want to go there – and I think it would be a welcomed thing perhaps, if society wills it – let's open up all the files. Let's find out who every spy was across the various sectors of society."

The EFF has since called for the alleged 40 journalists to reveal themselves before a list is published. Mahlase deems this move by the political party "dangerous to the lives of journalists", if the allegations are not tested,

"We have to be very careful on how we actually handle it, because this is putting journalists' lives in danger. We don't actually have credible evidence to back it up,'' Mahlase insisted.

Respected political analyst Steven Friedman has questioned the issues raised after Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's death, saying they have started a witch hunt. "The claims misread a statement by the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – that journalists whose reporting angered her were ''doing the work'' of Stratcom, an apartheid government security unit. That is very different from claiming that they worked for it – it means they played into its hands, even though they did not work for it,'' he says in his latest BusinessLive column.