Cape Town — The South African government has backed down at the last minute from imposing direct state control over all the country's newspapers. But the noose around the country's press has nonetheless been tightened another notch.
Or, as Harvey Tyson, the editor of the STar of Johannesburg, the biggest daily paper in South Africa, described it: ''The claws of the tiger (meaning the government) have been clipped. . . . But that does not mean the animal is no longer dangerous and cannot bite.''
Just as the current session of Parliament was drawing to a close, South Africa's minister of internal affairs, J. Chris Heunis, suddenly announced legislation that would require all South African papers to subject themselves ''for disciplinary purposes'' to a media council.
Any paper that refused to submit to the disciplinary provisions would be subject to cancellation of its registration. The council would be licensed by the government.
The government said its proposal was ''striving for the attainment of the highest possible (newspaper) standards by persons disseminating news.''
The nation's press reacted immediately and strongly against the plan. It is significant that Afrikaans papers, which usually support the government, spoke out against the proposal along with English-language papers, which generally support the government's opposition.
The press' view were expressed fairly accurately by the largest Cape Town newspaper, the Argus, which described the prospect of direct state control as ''appalling.''
In parliamentary debate, the opposition Progressive Federal Party and the Conservative Party, the new party that broke away from the ruling National Party , opposed the government's plan. Mr. Heunis at first refused to change anything of any substance in the proposed legislation.
But in the dying hours of parliamentary debate Mr. Heunis softened the proposal slightly by introducing an amendment that defines the media council as something ''voluntary and independent.'' However, the legislation still calls for newspapers to subject themselves to the discipline of the media council.
The Progressive Federal Party has called the change only ''cosmetic,'' contending that the prospect of the media council remaining ''voluntary and independent'' is questionable.
An Argus editorial viewed the prospect of new press retrictions this way: ''A servile, sycophantic press manipulated by the state can lead only to an uninformed public ignorant of its political options, prone to rumor, and prey to manipulation and gulling politicians.''
Even before the government proposed new press restrictions to Parliament, there were more than 100 laws restricting newspapers' freedom of expression. A retired editor has likened editing a newspaper under the laws to ''walking through a mine field blindfolded.''
Independent reporting on defense matters has been more or less taboo, even though the government has not forbidden it. Laws restrict newspaper reports about ''antiter-rorist'' action. This antiterrorist net is used to restrict information on a wide front.
For example, a police spokesman recently declined to say why a man held in solitary confinement without trial had been transferred to a state hospital for treatment. The information is simply ''privileged,'' he said, and that was that.