A South African editor who went one step too far

``My objective was a simple journalistic one. I was acting for no one but my readers, to make them well-informed,'' says Tony Heard, the latest South African editor to land in court. Mr. Heard faces the possibility of three years in jail for publishing an interview with Oliver Tambo, president of the outlawed African National Congress. Heard, who is editor of the Cape Times, South Africa's most liberal English-language morning newspaper, conducted the interview himself.

The Tambo interview was a first for South Africa. More and more people here believe there should be direct negotiations between South Africa's white-minority government and the ANC, which seeks to overthrow it. Curiosity about the ANC among white South Africans has been growing.

This has included a delegation of top South African businessmen who visited ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, and a delegation from the main white opposition party, the Progressive Federal Party.

``It seems these days as if everyone -- apart from the government -- has been visiting the ANC, but no one has been receiving them, in the sense of knowing what they stand for,'' said Heard in an interview.

``To me it is ludicrous that the head of a major South African company can have discussions with a banned organization, but that South Africans generally do not know what the ANC stands for.''

The crime for which Heard is being charged is quoting a ``banned'' person. Banned people in South Africa are those who appear on a list of political activists who are opposed to government and allegedly a danger to the state. To quote them can land an editor in jail for three years, without the option of a fine.

The interview, which was published Nov. 4, appeared at a time when the government was particularly sensitive to anything that might show the ANC in a good light. The government would like to dismiss the ANC as merely a communist, terrorist organization, and not a major nationalist movement with considerable black support.

There are many powerful people in the South African government who would like to see Heard in trouble. He has been a persistent opponent of the government's apartheid policies, and an opponent especially of government inroads on civil liberties.

Where some other editors have opted to play safe, he has persistently resisted pressure to keep quiet.

This means, he says, ``pushing hard, even testing the limits, with due prudence and responsibility, and ensuring that the public remains as informed as possible.''

This is not the first time Heard has published the views of a banned person. Last year he quoted Donald Woods, a banned former South African newspaper editor now living in exile. Heard justified the interview by saying that Mr. Woods had taken part in a public debate in Britain with South Africa's ambassador there, Denis Worrall.

During the debate, Dr. Worrall boasted that South African newspaper editors ``would all say they ran a free press.'' As a direct challenge to the government, Heard then published what Mr. Woods said in the debate. No other South African newspaper did so.

The government did not prosecute, presumably because of the embarrassment this would have caused Ambassador Worrall and itself.

But this time it is different. Despite widespread support Heard has received inside South Africa and from around the world, there are serious fears his career as the longest-serving editor in South Africa is in danger of being interrupted by a spell in jail.

The court case is due to begin early next month.

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