Raymond Louw, who died this week, was a champion of press freedom all his long life. He was a man of great integrity, principle, intellect, and compassion and his decisions and views were always guided by his head and his heart.
Louw was a veteran South African journalist and media freedom activist. Louw started his career in journalism in 1944, which notably included being the Editor of the Rand Daily Mail from 1966 to 1977, as well as the paper’s News Editor from 1960–1965. He was also the founder, editor and publisher of the Southern Africa Report from 1983-2011 and worked on a number of other newspapers throughout the years, including the Sunday Times and the UK’s North Western Evening Mail and Worthing Herald.
In 2010, he was named a World Press Freedom Hero by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) for his “commitment to press freedom and his outspoken defence of journalists’ rights.” Louw also twice received the Pringle Medal for services to journalism from the South African Society of Journalists as well as the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Media Freedom Award; the South African National Editors’ Forum’s Wrottesley Award; the Mondi-Shanduka Newspaper Lifetime Achiever Award and a Lifetime Achiever Award in the Vodacom journalist of the year awards.
During his 74 year career Louw had been at the forefront of the fight for press freedom in South Africa. During apartheid he headed the Media Defense Trust, which was set up to defend journalists, publications, film and video producers, broadcasters and authors against court actions or other censorship actions. He was then part of the Independent Media Commission to ensure state broadcasting and state-financed publications were impartial in their coverage of South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 and was later part of a special Task Group on Government Communications to restructure the apartheid government's propagandist division.
In the early 1990s Louw co-chaired the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting, which called for the establishment of an independent South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), an open process for selecting SABC board members, and an independent broadcasting regulator, which later became the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA).
Louw’s work in establishing and protecting press freedom continued after apartheid with his involvement in a number of press and freedom of expression-related organisations. As well as being the Vice-President of PEN South Africa, Louw is a former Chairperson of the Media Freedom Committee of the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), a former member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute, former Chairman of the Freedom of Expression Institute, Executive Committee member of the Freedom of Expression Institute, a Fellow of the International Press Institute and a member of the New Era Schools Trust.
Criminal defamation in Africa has been a particular issue that Louw focused on in recent years. In 2007 he drafted the Declaration of Table Mountain, which called for the elimination of “insult” and criminal defamation laws in Africa and for a review and subsequent repeal of other laws restricting the media. Louw persuaded the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) to adopt this Declaration as well as getting it passed as a resolution by PEN International at the organisation’s Congress in Dakar in 2009. He worked on the PEN International UNDEF project focused on criminal defamation on the African continent.
In 2016, to celebrate Louw’s 90th birthday, PEN South Africa awarded Louw the inaugural PEN South Africa Freedom of Expression Champion Award, on 15 November 2016, PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer. This special award was made because he championed the cause of free speech throughout his illustrious career. We celebrated his wisdom, experience and integrity and his astonishing career because he worked tirelessly to ensure that each and every writer and journalist can express their views without fear or favour. His response at the time of the award is typical of his modesty.
‘I am overwhelmed,’ he wrote at the time. ‘You have chosen to pay me the honour of being the first recipient of this prestigious award from a great institution for trying to do what all writers do constantly and for which many undergo brutal treatment and often imprisonment. You have chosen to announce this on the Day of the Imprisoned Writer and I am deeply conscious of the many writers, editors and journalists who have in the last few days and over the last several months been summarily imprisoned in Turkey and their newspapers closed. The right to know and to read and hear what others say and think is an essential element of life and I am pleased I discovered that truth. I am deeply appreciative of the award and will treasure it.’
Louw was unfailingly generous. His contribution to PEN South Africa was immense, as were the contributions he made to other PEN Centres in Africa. His knowledge and experience guided all of us. While I was president of PEN South Africa, Raymond Louw was my mentor, my guide and my friend. He was one of the most courageous people I have known and one of the most hard-working. He had no fear of those in power and, with implacable courtesy, he would stand his ground and hold them to account. He taught me – like so many of the generations of South African journalists and writers – to listen to the views of others with an open heart and an open mind. He taught me when to change my mind and when to hold my ground. He taught me the value of thoughtfulness, principle and courage.
His career has been so long and so stellar that it is easy to forget that Raymond was a loving and proud father and a devoted husband. His wife, Jean, died the day before Raymond. It makes sense that he followed her. She was – he told me once with a blush – the person who had brought him the most happiness. I like to imagine them together wherever they are. Go well, Raymond Louw, Hamba Kahle
Margie Orford is a journalist, film director, author of crime fiction and former president of PEN South Africa and a former board member of PEN International.