Denying the news

WHEN civic unrest develops and governments crack down, the news media are often accused of inciting as well as reporting the action. Yet blaming the press and censoring are not, even in the short term, a wise government response. This is the case with both Israel and South Africa.

Israel, while maintaining that it is doing nothing new, has been trying to curb media coverage of its efforts to control stone-throwing Palestinian demonstrators on the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli officials hope that, without media attention, Palestinian enthusiasm for protests will wane. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a small group of reporters: ``In all due respect, your and our interests are not the same.'' When a government does not see press coverage as serving its interest, it may try to eliminate not the trouble on the ground, but the awareness of it in the world's consciousness.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is said to have privately urged a ban on media coverage in the occupied territories at a small, off-the-record breakfast last month attended by prominent American Jewish leaders. Though he insists his remarks were taken out of context, he reportedly urged that Israel should suppress the uprising as quickly as possible, once the press is off the scene; he said the government should steel itself for the sure press criticism to follow.

Meanwhile in South Africa, press censorship continues strong. Pretoria shares little information about its police and military activities. Emergency rules still bar members of the news media from being present at the scene of unrest. Just this week police detained nine journalists and assaulted a television soundman, seizing their film, during a small anti-apartheid demonstration of black women. The women, from an affiliate of one of the 18 organizations banned last month from any political activity in South Africa, urged a tougher line against government curbs on anti-apartheid groups.

Yet the problems cloaked by keeping the press away are no less in need of solution than before. The answers, as American Jewish Committee president Theodore Ellenoff notes, lie not in censorship but in politics.

What the press loses by being shut out, whether in South Africa or in Israel, is far less important than what the public loses. No democratic society benefits in the long run from keeping its people in the dark.

And surely Israel must know it gains nothing in emulating South Africa.

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