Payne: Journalism essential to democracy

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When Les Payne, then a reporter for Newsday, finally made his way into South Africa to cover the 1976 Soweto uprising, the South African government designated him an "honorary white."

That was so Payne, an African-American and already a Pulitzer Prize-winner, would be able to book hotel rooms, attend news conferences and travel around the country to do his reporting, he told about 100 people gathered at Hofstra University's Emily Lowe Gallery for the 35th anniversary of the uprising.

With the press banned from covering the tightly controlled region, the former soldier and Vietnam veteran had to sneak into the black township of Soweto to find out that the official statement on how many had died in the uprising was wrong.

Payne went from funeral home to funeral home, waiting until after the owners had left for the day to obtain from lower-level workers lists of those killed in the riots. He documented that more than 850 people had died during the June uprising, not the government count of 350.

Hard-nosed journalism is essential to democracy and the U.S. media should not ignore the world beyond its borders, Payne said.

"News is too important to be left to the police state, or the president - or [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak or his police," Payne said in his talk,.

Payne's talk came as part of an art exhibit commemorating the 35th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising at Hofstra.

The exhibition is open through April 21 and showcases works Payne acquired during his trips to Soweto.

One is a bronze statue depicting a friend carrying the body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, the first student killed in the uprising.

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