Pretoria press clampdown. Sweeping new media restrictions criticized for amounting to `police state' measures
Johannesburg — South Africa is sharply tightening curbs on the local and foreign news media. Beginnning today, Pretoria is requiring ministerial clearance of news involving political ``resistance'' to the government.
The move was the clearest sign yet of the toughening mood of South African leaders since their imposition of a nationwide state of emergency June 12. The resolve to clamp down on political foes - and on news about them - has been strengthened, officials suggest, by post-emergency sanctions against Pretoria.
Explaining the clampdown, Deputy Minister of Information Stoffel van der Merwe said its aim was to turn back a ``coordinated attempt'' by those involved in political unrest to overthrow the South African government.
``There is a sense of disillusionment with the outside world,'' said Mr. van der Merwe. He added that despite government moves to institute race-policy reforms, the world community kept ``moving the goal posts'' in judging South Africa. He suggested that general resentment of the outside world was now rubbing off on foreign journalists here.
In an interview earlier this week confirming plans for a news media crackdown, Foreign Minister Roelof Botha remarked, similarly: ``We've got sanctions in any event.'' He indicated that sanctions had the effect of redoubling the government's ``paramount'' emphasis on ``security and the restoration of law and order.'' Stymied in a bid over the past year to bring black political leaders into talks on ``power sharing,'' officials maintain that unrest and ``radical intimidation'' must be quelled before talks are possible.
Earlier state-of-emergency curbs had barred the media from reporting anything falling under a vaguely phrased government definition of ``subversion;'' coming within ``sight'' of political unrest; or publishing the names of the thousands of people, mostly blacks, detained without charge under the security clampdown. But South African court rulings and journalistic inertia have slowly eroded the effect of these regulations.
While declining to disclose full details of the new restrictions, van der Merwe said they would cover ``all sorts of resistance'' being mounted against the government. This, he indicated, would mean not only violence, but strikes or boycotts of schools, buses, or other facilities. ``You cannot escape the conclusion,'' he said, ``that you must not only prevent bombings, but other acts'' to contain unrest.
Other officials - including Foreign Minister Botha in the interview this week - have charged that media coverage of unrest has, in effect, encouraged unrest. Another government grievance against the foreign press has been what officials term unfair editorial in overseas newspapers on South Africa's conflict.
In a sign that the new rules may be more stringently enforced than the earlier ones, van der Merwe said they would be promulgated and administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The ministry is in charge of granting or renewing work permits and visas to foreign correspondents here. Earlier this week, it announced it was not renewing the work permit of Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Parks. Officials suggest privately that this is a show of displeasure with the Times's editorial policy on South Africa.
Under the new rules, a reporter will have to get clearance from the appropriate government minister or designated deputy before publishing news on ``defined'' unrest matters. A list of these matters is expected to accompany the new regulations. South Africa's largest daily newspaper, The Star, reported yesterday that the list would include relevant public statements by members of Parliament. This has not been officially confirmed.
Statements made in Parliament were exempt from the earlier curbs. Since opposition legislators have been reading unrest-related news into the legislative record, this exemption has diluted government control of news reporting.
Rumors of the impending crackdown have sparked warnings from South African newspapers and opposition politicians that the country's parliamentary democracy, from which the black majority remains excluded, is under serious threat. Asked for comment yesterday, editor of the Cape Times newpaper, Tony Heard, voiced alarm.
``If the measures are as reported, they are police-state measures,'' he said. ``They are the action of fearful men who are not prepared to deal with real issues facing this country, but only with the symptoms.''
Van der Merwe, speaking to foreign journalists, acknowledged that the new rules represented an ``impingement of traditional democratic processes.'' He said he personally was uncomfortable with this. ``But I am a part of it, and I'll live with it.''
Terming the curbs a necessary response to ``intelligence information'' that he was not free to disclose, he said: ``The aim of this government is not to establish a totalitarian system in South Africa. The aim is to establish a free, democratic process.''