South Africa's clampdown on media draws criticism at home and abroad

The South African government's clampdown on media coverage of racial unrest has drawn criticism at home and abroad. The new measure, imposed Saturday, prohibits the televising, photographing, recording, or drawing of unrest in areas affected by an emergency decree, except with the permission of the commissioner of police.

The South African Foreign Correspondents Association immediately condemned the move, calling it a step down the ``slippery slide toward a totally controlled press.''

Britain also reacted immediately, saying it was very disturbed at the curbs. The three major American television networks urged the South African government to reverse the order.

Foreign Minister Roelof Botha announced the action as a bid to end what he described as the ``vicious and venomous'' coverage by foreign TV crews.

Analysts cited other possible motives: a government desire to appear tough before its white constituents; and a desire to halt the movement abroad toward favoring economic sanctions on South Africa.

The decision to ban foreign reporting of conflict in those areas has been pending ever since a CBS team filmed an ambush of young stone throwers in Cape Town by armed police in a decoy truck last month.

The ban applies to disturbances, riots, strikes, boycotts, attacks on property, and assaults on individuals, as well as to action taken by security forces. Journalists will still be able to give eyewitness reports on TV and radio and in newspapers of what they see of conflict in emergency areas, provided they are able to get close enough to observe events at first hand.

About one-third of South Africa's population lives in the 38 magisterial districts where a state of emergency is in force. The government declared the emergency mainly in the Johannesburg and eastern Cape areas on July 21 in an effort to curtail unrest, and later extended it to include areas around the city of Cape Town.

A statement by Louis Le Grange, South Africa's minister of law and order, stressed that only accredited journalists will be allowed to report on unrest in emergency areas and then only if they first report to the commanding police officer for assistance.

The police had the power to order journalists to leave an emergency area even before the ban. Journalists reporting to the police may be summarily ordered to leave or, alternatively, confined to a police station or command post for police briefings of what is happening in trouble spots. Accreditation can, of course, be withdrawn both from foreign and local journalists.

The prohibition on filming or photographing of conflict in emergency areas applies to ``any person'' and not merely to journalists. The chances of obtaining a video or photographs of conflict from the public is thus drastically re-duced. But even if illegal footage or photographs are obtained, it would be an offense to distribute it.

Penalties for contravention of the new regulations are severe. They include confiscation of equipment, a fine of up to about $50,000 or imprisonment for 10 years without the option of a fine.

Mr. Le Grange justified the ban as necessary because the presence of TV crews in troubled areas had ``proved to be a catalyst for further violence.'' But, he added, the government had ``no intention of curtailing the right of the public to be informed of current events.''

Foreign Minister Botha described the new restraints as ``limited'' and insisted: ``Nowhere in Africa does the press have the extent of freedom which it has in this country.''

Earlier, a verbally combative Botha accused the foreign press of ignoring government reform initiatives and of presenting a distorted, one-sided picture of South Africa, of offering TV viewers a ``tunnel vision'' of South Africa aflame.

The ban was imposed after a spate of attacks on the foreign press by government leaders from President Pieter W. Botha downward.

Some South African journalists joined in the attack on foreign correspondents, accusing them of bias and possibly even of paying ``black children and adults to burn books and repeat stone throwing incidents for the purpose of filming them.''

In dealing with Le Grange's claim that the restrictions were aimed only at reducing the level of violence, the FCA said in a statement issued after imposition of the new restrictions, ``it is absurd to hold a small group of journalists responsible for a profound political conflict that has been going on for more than a year [and] left more than 800 people dead.''

Referring to what it described as the ban on correspondents entering areas of unrest except under police escort, the FCA added: ``Public scrunity of police and Army actions will be impeded and a news vacuum will develop in which rumors and distortions, from whatever quarter, will prevail, without the possibility of independent verification.''

In a front page editorial entitled ``The dark ages,'' City Press, a newspaper aimed primarily at blacks, said: ``Journalists in [emergency] areas will now have to ask for permission from the police commissioner. Experience has shown us that it could be hours before permission is received -- and by then the issue will be academic.''

The Sunday Star in Johannesburg predicted in an editorial that the consequences of the new curbs would be threefold: exaggeration of suspicion and rumor, removal of a vital watchdog over police abuse, and erosion of the free flow of information.

But in an editorial, written before the ban was promulgated and scheduled for broadcast today, the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation declared: ``It has been said that the most powerful weapon of the terrorists is not the bomb or the AK-47 rifle. It is the publicity in the mass media and especially the television screens. That is no less true of the radical activist [whose] outrageous behavior is enough to ensure international publicity for his political claims, regardless of their validity.''

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