S. Africa signals preference for lighter touch in quelling unrest

South Africa has at least temporarily eased its restrictions on the foreign news media. This move, as well as continuing political violence, have been hallmarks of the country's first 10 days since the government lifted a formal state of emergency.

So large is the country and so widely scattered are incidents of unrest that, even with the loosened media control, the week's worst unrest erupted beyond the gaze of world TV cameras. Last Tuesday police opened fire on a crowd, consisting mostly of schoolchildren, outside a courthouse in White River, east of Johannesburg. Two youths died and about 80 other people were wounded.

The youths had gathered outside a courthouse where classmates were due to face trial. Police said they fired when the crowd broke down a fence. A lawyer at the scene has taken issue with the official version. He said there was no apparent justification for the shooting.

Generally, the government seems to be pondering how best to handle political unrest without formal emergency powers. Existing security and race-related laws already give the authorities far wider power than in most Western countries. Early signs indicate that the government is ready and willing to use this power, but would prefer a lower-profile form of control.

In an example of its willingness to use power, the authorities followed up lifting the state of emergency by issuing ``banning orders'' against two prominent black political figures.

On the media front, however, the government took the lower-profile option last week. First, it rescinded an eviction order against three employees of the United States television network, CBS. The move came after lengthy talks between CBS and the Minister of Home Affairs. The talks were capped by a joint statement on the alleged CBS violation, shortly before the end of the emergency decree, of a ban on camera coverage at a black funeral rally.

And Friday, South Africa's Deputy Minister of Information, Louis Nel, and foreign reporters worked out an agreed limit on cameras and still-photo coverage that would be allowed at a similar funeral near Cape Town the next day. Under tightened state-of-emergency controls on the media instigated last November such limited coverage would have been barred.

What media policy South Africa will now adopt is unclear. Mr. Nel, in announcing the arrangement, indicated that under existing laws he could have imposed an emergency-type ban on press access. He also repeated the official reasoning for last year's restrictions -- that the presence of photographers and cameramen could encourage violence. The Johannesburg Foreign Press Association has repeatedly challenged this.

The Home Affairs Ministry also provided a reminder of its power over foreign media employees. This power consists in renewal of work permits -- necessary every three or six months depending on the case.

In recent months, there have been delays in the renewal of some reporters' credentials. Ministry officials, however, say these have been due to bureaucratic snags. The situation has eased somewhat over the past few weeks. The ministry says it has decided to provide letters allowing reporters to continue working in South Africa in such cases of bureaucratic delay.

But Friday, a West German television reporter was informed, without public explanation, that his work permit would not be renewed.

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