S. Africa newspaper pays price for criticizing government. Editor's efforts to encourage dialogue result in thicket of legal problems

To the authorities, Anthony Heard is a nuisance -- even a law breaker. To the author of a recent death threat, he's a pro-black ``pig.'' Yet the editor of South Africa's oldest daily newspaper, the Cape Times, feels he is just a journalist trying to do his job.

He has been doing it nearly all his life -- ever since his days as a cub reporter on the Times while still at the University of Cape Town. The glint in Mr. Heard's gray-blue eyes and his ruggedly youthful look suggest he still loves what he does.

As editor of the Times -- a post he has held for the past 14 years -- he says he seeks both to publish news as fairly and unflaggingly as he can, and ``to encourage the widest possible dialogue'' in his nation which is bitterly divided on the issue of racial equality.

Over half the paper's readers are nonwhite -- mostly from the mixed-race ``colored'' community which constitutes the largest number of people in the Cape area.

During the last 18 months of civil unrest and violence, reports concerning black opposition to the government's policy of apartheid -- forced segregation of the races -- have come under ever more careful scrutiny by Pretoria.

Editorially, the Times has a record of critcizing government policies. Heard and his staff have increasingly come into conflict with the powers that be.

Next month Heard is due back in court, for having interviewed -- and quoted -- the exiled head of the most prominent black nationalist group, the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), late last year.

The ANC is officially accused of perpetrating ``communism'' and ``terror,'' and it is illegal to quote their leader, Oliver Tambo.

Heard's most recent brush with authority came this month when his paper challenged the official account of a police shootout with alleged ANC militants in a nearby black township.

The Times published witnesses' allegations that one of the seven blacks killed in the showdown had tried to surrender, and that a second was ``finished off'' on the ground.

The South African police issued a subpoena asking the Times to name its sources. The national commissioner of police wrote Heard, accusing the Times of a ``biased and slanted'' view of the police and of adopting a policy of ``trial by newspaper.''

The Times ran the commissioner's letter. Heard denies the charges it made. He says he merely published all available news on the shoot-out -- including the official version.

Heard says he agonized over whether to run his reporter's contradictory account of the shootout in the township. ``The reporter in question is straight as an arrow, with no political axe to grind. He speaks Xhosa'' -- the native language of the witnesses -- ``and checked back on the story before we went with it.

``For me it boiled down to a question of whether I trusted the reporter,'' Heard told the Monitor in an interview a few days before yesterday's 110th anniversary of the Times' birth.

``I trust the reporter. I felt I had no choice but to go with the story.''

That crisis, at least for now, has eased: The witnesses gave the police sworn statements echoing their account in the Times.

Other charges or official inquiries have been directed at Time's reporters recently.

One journalist, who wrote an article saying an off-duty policeman had beaten an alleged thief, has been informed that he may be charged with ``failing to assist a policeman with an arrest when asked to do so.''

In addition, a photographer has been called into court in connection with a published picture of soldiers' detaining a man at an area univerity.

Heard says, whatever the intention of such official actions regarding the Times, the effect has been to complicate the task of getting out a daily newspaper. But he adds: ``I feel its our job to get as much good news reporting as humanly possible into print. And we're determined to do that job.''

The Times has stood out more starkly on the country's political horizon since April 1985 when its sister paper, Johannesburg's Rand Daily Mail, folded.

But Heard does not see his role as pushing a particular political line. ``I see myself as a journalist trying to report the news -- and promote communication.''

A sign of the country's political polarization over the issue of forced segregation of the races seems evident in a death threat Heard recently received -- postmarked from a white suburb of Johannesburg.

``Kiss your family goodbye. They're going too,'' said the note, which Heard showed to the Monitor -- and to the police. The note was signed: ``Sincerely, with hate.''

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