South Africa's effort to license journalists sets a poor example just when the West has been opposing in UNESCO the licensing of journalists on an international scale. From reports of the South African plan, it confirms the West's concern that licensing means controlling the press rather than -- as argued by some third-world advocates -- protecting and improving it.
If the recommendation of a governmental commission is accepted, South Africa would prohibit the publication of articles except by officially registered writers having specified qualifications. They would be subject to a regulatory council controlled by the government though eventually including elected members. Both South African and foreign journalists would have to abide by a code with such provisions as requiring care and responsibility in coverage that might give offense on racial matters or detrimentally affect the nation's economy and security.
Unquestionably care and responsibility ought to be exercised on all subjects by any country's press. But they cannot be defined and enforced by fiat. The responsibility of a free press is to the public not to any regime.
As it is, a visitor to South Africa may be initially encouraged by the newspapers' evident freedom to print news and editorials critical of the government. A satirical stage presentation, ''Adapt or Dye,'' recently reached its 150th performance, using both English and Afrikaans to lampoon racist attitudes and laws - and, to be sure, liberal foibles also. South Africa's political and social tensions can use the untrammeled perspective of laughter as well as full public information for enlightened resolution of them.
But the trend is away from more freedom. Even within the pro-government Afrikaner press there is recognition of increased inhibitions short of outright government censorship. The thrust is for self-discipline and ''objectivity,'' for avoiding material that might be taken out of context and quoted by outsiders to the government's disadvantage. The result is not only appropriate efforts to give both sides of every story, such as the recent allegations and denials of police torture. It is also the dilution or downplaying of some information that previously might have been brought more urgently to public attention.
Yet in the eyes of the press commission the self-discipline has not been sufficient. Hence the proposed pressure of credentials to be bestowed or withheld on the basis of governmentally approved conduct. South African critics of the regulatory plan see the dangers as well as anybody else. A West fighting against such regulation elsewhere can only hope they prevail against its becoming law.