Press curbs target Pretoria activists. Aim is to deny key opponents publicity and support
Pretoria — The South African government's tightened news media curbs are part of a wider move against pressure for black-majority rule. The restrictions, announced yesterday, are the second stage in a counteroffensive that began with the calling of a state of emergency in June. Reporting of the South African conflict will be seriously affected. For the first time, all news media - both foreign and domestic - must clear stories with the government before publication. Officials suggest, however, that foreign reporters are not the central target of South Africa's tightest-ever news media curbs.
The state of emergency, under which thousands of people have been arrested without charge, has sharply slowed the momentum of antigovernment violence that began in the fall of 1984. But other forms of protest persist - including strikes, boycotts, and the operation of alternative governmental structures like ``street committees'' and ``people's courts'' in many black areas.
It is these - and publicity or public support of them - that appear to be the key targets of the new rules. The restraints, officials say, will apply not only to the news media, but also to public statements by any individual South African.
The new restrictions replace earlier media curbs. They extend the range of issues and actions on which news coverage is deemed ``subversive'' and thus illegal. Included for the first time are all boycotts, unauthorized strikes, and ``structures purporting to be structures of local government and acting as such in an unlawful manner.''
Under the new rules, local editorial comment or other public remarks on these issues are also potentially subversive and subject to censorship. Also barred are unauthorized reports on the conditions of detention of those held under the emergency.
The text of the rules suggests they are aimed at reining in the most influential and well organized of the country's antigovernment groups and spokespersons. Among the groups most affected:
The United Democratic Front (UDF). This is the largest organization committed to replacing the present political system with a nonracial one. It includes some 850 community organizations, trade unions, and other groups nationwide and claims a membership of 2 million people, white and black. Though the UDF has been hurt by state-of-emergency bans on rallies and by the arrest of many members, its affiliates have remained active in support of boycotts and of local ``street committees.''
The End Conscription Campaign (ECC). This white group opposes military service in general and the posting of troops in black townships in particular.
The Weekly Mail. This is by far the most influential of the country's antigovernment publications. Along with several other liberal or leftist journals around the country, the Mail has managed in spite of earlier press curbs to cover the UDF, the ECC, and a variety of figures, groups, or political actions opposing the emergency. Where this has risked government reprisal, the newspaper has sometimes run blank spaces or blacked-out paragraphs to emphasize the effects of censorship.
The new rules forbid such indirect comment on media censorship, as well as widening restrictions to include major issues on which the Mail's coverage has focused.
In a response to the ECC, the original emergency regulations termed ``subversive'' any statement ``likely'' to ``incite the public to ... discredit or undermine the system of compulsory military service.'' The new rules tighten that definition, to cover any statement ``by which the system of compulsory military service is discredited or undermined.''
Briefing foreign reporters on the new rules, officials rejected local media charges that the aim was a full-scale banning of political dissent. Statements by opposition politicians in Parliament remain exempt from censorship, they noted. They said that the rules on media comment would not be interpreted ``restrictively'' - but ``within the ambit of the state of emergency,'' now widened to target not only violence, but also the range of other antigovernment actions listed in the new rules.
The extent to which the rules will curtail news coverage will depend largely on how the rules are implemented by the officials whose prior agreement is now needed for specific news stories, TV and radio reports. Although nominally, authorization must come from Cabinet ministers or their designated deputies, the government's Bureau of Information yesterday opened a ``media center'' at which relevant government spokesmen will vet copies of reporters' material.
The above report was passed, without change, by government censors.