A bad ban in southern Africa

Black African nations - or any other nations, for that matter - have better ways to get a fair shake in the world press than by excluding journalists under whatever pretext. The so-called front-line states of southern Africa can salvage a self-defeating situation by not pursuing their recently announced ban on journalists based in neighboring South Africa.

These front-line states include Zimbabwe, Angola, and Zambia, for example. Their officials argue that reporters who live in South Africa tend to misrepresent southern Africa and support the white South African government's view of the region.

This is a possible risk, though reporters tend to be wary of supporting any government's view of anything. Yet the risk is worth taking by black nations that need the fullest international understanding. Only in freedom of the press is there the opportunity for accurate views to prevail over misguided ones.

These African states are not the only developing nations to be concerned about distorted coverage. There are continuing United Nations efforts to improve information services about and within the third world. Here, too, the challenge has been not to inhibit freedom of the press in the guise of protecting journalists or ensuring ''balanced'' coverage.

An alternative to restricting Western news agencies, for example, is to add third-world press services. In Africa itself the new Pan-African News Agency is bringing together and retransmitting reports provided by national news agencies on a continent-wide basis. It has plans to distribute its news outside Africa as well. Perhaps eventually the reports will go beyond official ones.

The growth of nongovernmental distribution of information can be facilitated by bolstering the training and equipment of the press in third-world countries. The cooperation of the UN and industrial nations in this effort is one of the most promising avenues toward the goal of both free and fair information.

Such avenues would serve the southern African nations better than banning journalists working out of South Africa. No one is minimizing the blight of South Africa's racial discrimination. Just this week the UN's Secretary-General told the current Geneva Conference to Combat Racism that ''the continuance of apartheid casts an obscene shadow on humanity as a whole.'' The front-line officials must know that journalists based in the midst of apartheid need be no more attracted or influenced by that shadow than the rest of humanity.

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