Judging from police reports, violence in South Africa has receded in the past 10 days. But restrictions on press coverage make those reports difficult to verify independently. Since Nov. 2, broadcast journalists have been prohibited from filming and recording disturbances in any area under a state of emergency, except with the permission of the commissioner of police.
Foreign TV crews have felt the restrictions acutely.
``We are taking legal counsel to find how we can best cover the unrest within the law,'' says Bill Mutschmann, CBS bureau chief here. ``We are of a foreign group and are guests of South Africa. If that is the law, we have to abide by it.''
CBS crews have standing instructions to ``fold up their cameras'' if they are in an emergency area and trouble starts. But, Mr. Mutschmann added, if major news breaks the situation would have to be assessed afresh.
``It is my recommendation that all the foreign crews should go into the area and they can arrest all of us,'' he says. The imperatives of news-gathering could supersede the need to function within the law in the event of a significant development in the South African saga, he says.
In the meantime, CBS is trying to cover events as best it can. It was refused permission to televise a massive police presence in Johannesburg recently and, Mutschmann says, its television crews had been told by policemen in the western Cape Province that all foreign press accreditation cards might be withdrawn.
Assessing the impact of the restrictions, Michael Buerk, southern Africa correspondent of the BBC, said: ``It means we are no longer going into black townships around Johannesburg and in the Cape to cover the unrest. We are not going to deliberately break the law.''
But he also predicted that if there was a dramatic turn in the current unrest, an event which ``you don't have to go out to look for,'' then all the television crews would certainly cover it.
Heather Allan, NBC bureau chief here, agreed: ``We can't sit here if something big is happening.'' She said the decision to openly cover breaking news would probably be made for South African bureaus by their head offices, that they would be ordered to cover the ``big one'' and told to leave the problem of paying fines, bail, and lawyers to their superiors in the United States and Britain.
The atmosphere between the government and the foreign press has been further strained by a recent claim by Deputy Minister of Information Louis Nel that a South African working for a foreign television team is a police informer. He says the informant reported that television crews have obstructed justice and incited illegal acts to create news.
But Mr. Nel has not been more specific in his allegation. South Africa's Foreign Correspondents Association dismissed the charge as nonsense, and challenged Nel to ``name the informer and remove the smear against a number of honest correspondents dedicated to their profession.''
When Nel first announced the ban on sound and film coverage earlier this month, he insisted that journalists would be free to move about, make notes, and talk to people.
Nel then accused the Foreign Correspondents Association of overreaction and distortion when it interpreted the restrictions as a ``ban on correspondents entering an unrest area except under police escort.'' Last week, however, police flatly told journalists in the western Cape that they could only enter areas of unrest in the company of specially designated police officers. Failure to do so would result in arrest, the police warned.
The main centers of violence have been black and Colored (mixed-race) townships around Cape Town, at the southern tip of the country, and to a lesser extent the sprawling township of Soweto, near Johannesburg. But journalists are denied free entry into both areas.
Theoretically, television crews can enter emergency areas provided they are calm when the journalists enter. But the freedom exists on paper only. In the western Cape, television crews have been apprehended and ordered out even though there were no disturbances at the time. Soweto has been closed to all journalists for more than two weeks on the orders of the local divisional commissioner of police.
``The laws [restricting the press] are extremely wide and a lot of discretion is left to the local officer in charge,'' says Mr. Buerk of the BBC. He mentioned the arrest of a foreign TV crew last Friday in an area outside Cape Town at a time when there was no violent activity.
Except in Soweto, there is no absolute ban on journalists entering an emergency area or even remaining there if trouble erupts, provided they put their cameras and recording equipment away and report to the police. But their freedom to report the news has been severely restricted by police.