S. Africa press curbs: letter of the law less tough than feared. But it's the spirit that matters, leading writers to censor selves

South Africa's press curbs are proving less severe in some ways - but at least potentially more so in others - than was originally feared. The letter of the law is far less restrictive on newspaper reporting than government critics and much of the news media originally suggested. Media lawyers here say that in this regard, government officials are right to complain that they got something of a bum rap in initial reports on the rules, announced Dec. 11.

Yet so far at least, the spirit of the media rules has mattered considerably more than their letter. No reporter has been prosecuted under the new rules. Since their publication, however, two black South African journalists have been arrested without specific charge.

Under earlier curbs announced alongside a nationwide state of emergency in June, several foreign journalists have been deported for presumed media-law violations, without explanation of what facet of the regulations they may have overstepped. Another, the Los Angeles Times correspondent, awaits decision on his appeal of a similar expulsion order - aimed less at him, officials suggest privately, than at the Times' editorial columns.

Against this background, local and foreign reporters are engaging in varying degrees of self-censorship.

``The issue day to day,'' says one of South Africa's most experienced experts on media law, ``has become politically - rather than legally - what one feels free to publish.'' Adds a colleague, who is on retainer for a number of South African newspapers, ``The regulations are serving as a deterrent.''

In many areas, the letter of the regulations - and relevant court challenges to the June media curbs - still allows considerable leeway to reporters. Among important examples of this are the following:

Though the rules bar reporting of what are vaguely defined as ``subversive statements,'' an appelate court here ruled this should not prevent ``even [remarks] strongly critical of the government,'' as long as these do not incite people to illegal antigovernment action. The exception involves the white-led End Conscription Campaign, which opposes the draft and posting of troops in black townships. In the case of antidraft statements, incitement is not a prerequisite for ``subversiveness.''

While the rules limit coverage of the sort of consumer boycotts used increasingly as a tool of anti-apartheid protests, the restriction's wording targets only incitement of such boycotts, or disclosures of how they are organized and how effective they are. In other words, media lawyers here concur, the fact of a boycott can still be reported.

Although the rules ban reporting on the conditions in which state-of-emergency prisoners are held, or on when and whether the person is freed from confinement, court rulings have freed the media to report on the fact that an individual has been detained once the detainee's next of kin have been informed.

The rules limit reporting on banned political meetings, but only inasmuch as the report provides prior notice of the meeting or discloses the content of the speeches. The fact that such a meeting was held can, theoretically, be reported.

While the regulations constrain reporting on ``purported alternative structures of government'' set up in some black areas, the curb is worded to apply only to references to how such structures are organized or encouraged.

Although the regulations include a near-blanket ban on reporting or photographing police and troop activities to quell unrest, the unrest, itself, can still be reported under the letter of the law.

Finally, while items falling under the above regulations can be published only with prior approval of government censors, journalists may publish reports not covered by the letter of the restriction without checking with the censors.

Some areas of reporting are all but prohibited under the curbs. The most important is photography. While a print reporter can conceivably report on unrest without explicitly referring to police or troop action, for instance, photographing such an incident without infringing the rules is more difficult.

But the crucial question for all news media remains the spirit in which the rules will be applied. Officials at the Bureau of Information, the government body in charge of media matters, say privately that the regulations will be applied much less restrictively than opposition politicians, and the media, have alleged. The main target of the rules, these officials say, will be reports that have the clear effect of encouraging ordinary citizens to join in antigovernment unrest.

In this sense, concurs a prominent lawyer retained by various local and foreign newspapers here, ``There is still an awful lot that can be reported legally.''

But officials also say that, in the case of foreign reporters, the government may still move against what it deems to be transgressions by deporting the offender without specific charge or process of judicial appeal. Some changes suggested on articles submitted to the censors have involved phrases that, under the letter of the restrictions, are permissible.

Local reporters, for their part, have voiced alarm at the arrest during the past three weeks of two prominent black reporters. Officials have indicated that the arrests are linked to allegations of illegal political activities, rather than news reporting or editorial activities. At time of writing, no specific charges against either detainee had been announced.

This report was written to conform with South Africa's press restrictions.

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