Press suppression never really works

IF your city has an independent newspaper or broadcasting station, try to imagine these scenes: Four non-uniformed men, two wearing hoods, break down a fence and forcibly carry away your local newspaper editor.

The government orders the only paper in town that doesn't follow its line to close down immediately.

In both cases, there is no warning. No due process. No court case. No appeal.

It couldn't happen in your town? Of course not. But both events did occur last week. The first in South Africa. The second in Nicaragua.

No editor is, or should be, immune to arrest if he or she has been indicted for, or been caught committing, a crime. But kidnap-by-government is quite a different matter from arrest.

No newspaper (or broadcast station) is, or should be, immune to failure. But the death of a newspaper by government fiat is not the same as demise because of loss of readers or revenue.

The abduction Friday of black newspaper editor Zwelakhe Sisulu from his South African home was part of a grim Orwellian scenario. It can only be described as government kidnapping. That characterization fits not only because it describes the action, but because the appearance of kidnapping was left standing by the baffling censorship laws now in effect in South Africa.

Mr. Sisulu was reportedly taken from his home by four men in civilian clothes (if the hoods on two of them can be called civilian). In many countries that scene would mean vigilante action. Police would be called to investigate.

As it turns out, police apparently were the abductors of Sisulu, hauling him in for questioning and quite possibly detention without trial.

It is strange for public servants to wear hoods in a country supposedly ruled by law. It is just as strange for journalists to be forced to continue reporting the event as if it were a civil kidnapping because censorship rules prevent publication of stories about police detention under current South African emergency regulations.

Citizens in many countries would also find it unbelievable to hear that their government summarily ordered the local paper to close. But that's precisely what the Nicaraguan junta did last Thursday to La Prensa, which for 60 years had stood as an independent voice in Managua. The government accused the paper of accepting CIA funding and acting as a ``mouthpiece'' for President Reagan. There was no chance for either charge to be heard in court. Considerable circumstantial evidence weighs against both accusations.

First, it's hard to be a mouthpiece for any position when your news columns are heavily censored every day. Anyone who has seen copies of La Prensa can testify to the emasculation wrought by the government censor.

Second, if La Prensa had received any CIA subsidy, one member of its owning family chose a peculiar way to say thank you. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro -- son of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal, who was killed in 1978 for opposing the dictatorial Somoza regime -- has criticized the CIA-backed ``contras'' at a time when such criticism jeopardized support in the US Congress for those opponents of the Sandinista junta.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega may have felt his junta could finally risk shutting down La Prensa because international reaction to the World Court's decision against US intervention in Nicaragua provided an effective cover.

These Nicaraguan events hardly rank with the 1956 drama in which British-French-Israeli intervention against Egypt at Suez served to distract attention from the Soviet invasion of Hungary. But the two cases are parallel in some ways.

In 1956 an overplayed hand by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles led to Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal Company. And that, in turn, gave a pretext for the ill-conceived action by the three-nation expeditionary force. The crushed Hungarian uprising did not, certainly, go unnoticed. But Suez distracted both public attention and diplomatic-military pressure.

It seems entirely likely that 30 years hence a view of the considerably smaller Nicaraguan events may be read the same way. Washington miscalculated its response to the Nicaraguan World Court action. The US State Department might either have encouraged a counterclaim by one of Nicaragua's neighbors or defended the case itself -- if it had evidence of prior Nicaraguan military meddling in El Salvador, Honduras, or Costa Rica. It did neither. The court, having no counterclaim, found evidence of US-backed intervention contrary to international law. Its decision brought headlines that helped drown out news of La Prensa's demise.

Futurology is always risky. It is particularly foolhardy in politics. But no student of history should be surprised to find Zwelakhe Sisulu's newspaper carrying on, with or without him, above ground or underground. Nor will it be surprising to discover if La Prensa, which survived Somoza, someday returns to inform the citizens of Managua.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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