S. African press off the hook on expected curbs -- for now

It looks as if the South African government, which was considered likely to introduce further measures to control the press, is going to let newspapers off the hook, at least for the rest of this year.

A special commission appointed by the all-white Parliament and headed by a Supreme Court judge has been sitting for a year, quizzing journalists, government officials, and politicians about the mass media generally, but mainly newspapers.

But its report has now been delayed until the end of August, and Interior Affairs Minsiter J. Chris Heunis, a tall, dolefullooking man, says passage of any new press laws this year is "unlikely."

The South African government has an obsession with the press, particularly the English-language newspapers, which generally oppose its racial policies. Many officials seem to believe these papers are "unSouth African," biased, anti-Afrikaner -- even agents of South Africa's enemies.

Many laws limit press freedom, to the extent that a prominent newspaper editor likened his job years ago to "walking blindfold through a minefield." And things have become steadily more difficult.

Reporting about defense matters, for example, is virtually impossible without clearance from the Defense Force itself. The Ministry of Police and Prisons is heavily protected from the press. And violations carry heavy penalties.

But the government is not satisfied.

Its first investigation into the press started soon after the present ruling National Party came into power in 1948. A commission was appointed and its investigations, into foreign newspapers and press agencies as well as the South African press, dragged on for nearly 14 years.

After six of the original eight commissioners had left, the inquiry fizzled out with its work incomplete.

The present commission of inquiry, chaired by Judge Marthinus Steyn, has been far more businesslike.

Many opposition politicians believe that whatever it recommends, the government will use its report as a pretext to constrict the freedom of the press further.

The two most likely ways in which this could be done are to set up a statutory press council and to set up a "register of journalists." A government spokesman has already hinted that a press council could have powers not only to fine newspapers and journalists for contravening a "code of ethics," but also to shut newspapers down temporarily or for good, and to suspend journalists from working for a period -- or for life.

It has also been proposed that fewer foreign journalists be allowed to work in this country.

The newspaper industry has hit back hard, urging fewer restrictions on press freedom, not more.

Newspapers also pointed out that an independent Press Council already exists and isempowered to fine newspapers up to nearly $10,000 for unfair, prejudicial, or deliberately inaccurate reports.

Of 138 complaints to the Press Council in a recent one-year period , only four were found to have substance.

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