S. Africa moves to tighten grip on 'almost free' press

Repeated warnings from the South African government that the press here should ''get its house in order'' have crystalized into legislative proposals.

The government-appointed Steyn Commission has just completed a lengthy report on the news media in South Africa. One of its chief stated aims was to ''prevent emergency measures being taken,'' presumably by the government. Mandatory new media guidelines, the commission concluded, were preferable to the specter of censorship.

The commission sounded friendly enough to the press when it noted that ''too often the press in particular is simply a handy punchbag for deficiencies which lie elsewhere.''

Yet the steps proposed by the commission, and now being reviewed by the government for possible legislation, were seen as a body blow by much of the media here.

The liberal Rand Daily Mail, an English-language newspaper, warned that the proposals amounted to a ''perhaps fatal assault on your right to be kept informed of what is happening in your own country.''

The Sowetan, a black newspaper, said the proposals would ''bring the end of the 'almost free' press in South Africa.''

The Afrikaans press, generally supportive of the government, showed more sympathy for the findings. In an editorial, Die Transvaler said, ''In view of the growing intensity of the threat in South Africa we cannot carry on as before.''

Still, Die Transvaler and other Afrikaans newspapers remained critical of some of the central steps proposed.

South African Prime Minister P. W. Botha said the government would meet with media representatives. ''Whether legislation on the media is necessary and what form it should take is not a matter which the government wants to decide unilaterally,'' he said.

The central proposal, and the one most criticized, is to ''professionalize'' journalists by requiring them to register and abide by standards set by a 12 -member council. The registration system would be similar to that required of doctors, lawyers, and accountants.

Journalists who do not register or who are struck from the register for failing to abide by the established code of conduct would be prohibited from working in South Africa. Foreign journalists would be subject to the jurisdiction of the council.

Critics see in the proposal an opening for controlling the press through the registration process. The government would appoint all the members of the 12 -member council for the first year. In succeeding years it would elect only three members, but its influence would remain strong: Three members are to be elected by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, over which the government has control.

The press is already subject to considerable control in South Africa. It is illegal to publish information about the ''constitution, movements, deployment, or methods'' of the police force in actions against terrorism.

The opposition Progressive Federal Party was sharply critical of the proposals, saying they would destroy the media's ''freedom and independence.''

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