S. African press faces new probe by government group

The South African government's latest bid to restrict the country's newspapers has run into controversy from the start. One of the men named to a government commission set up to investigate whether "the conduct of the mass media meets the needs and interests of the South African community and the demands of the times" may be obliged to withdraw.

This is because of his known antagonistic attitude toward some newspapers, and a previous public suggestion that businessmen should help discipline newspapers by withdrawing advertising.

But that will not stop the commission from proceeding with its task, which some important editors and publishers regard with gloomy foreboding -- whether their papers are printed in English or Afrikaans.

Already there are something like 100 laws that contain restrictions on the freedom of the press. Some matters -- such as the activities of the South African Defense Force -- cannot be reported at all without government permission.

It also is an offense to report the activities of the police when they are operating under certain security laws.

And it is dangerous and difficult to try to report on anything that happens inside South Africa's jails.

But in spite of legal restrictions -- which make editing a South African newspaper like walking through a minefield blindfold, as one daily newspaper editor once described it -- there still is a continuing chorus of complaint about the press from the ruling National Party. The criticism is about the country's English-language papers, which almost uniformly support the opposition Progressive Federal Party.

Alarmed at the depth of government antagonism toward the press, the country's main English and Afrikaans newspaper publishers set up the South African Press Council, to which the public (and government departments) are invited to take any complaints.

The press council consistently has congratulated the press on its high standards. Last year, only 139 complaints were made to the council, and of these, only four were upheld.

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