South Africa's expected new moves against newspapers will just about complete a process to gag expressions of antigovernment discontent, journalists and political analysts say. At issue are several small publications, most of which concentrate on covering black politics. The government alleges they are ``fanning'' political unrest and thus could be censored or even temporarily closed under media restrictions enacted last autumn. Observers believe such drastic measures probably will be taken this month against the New Nation, a weekly.
Such an action would be seen as a finishing touch to the crackdown begun 18 months ago with a state of emergency imposed to quell unrest. It follows other regulations set down at the end of 1986 restricting reporting by local and foreign journalists. Add to that curbs slapped on in June 1986 and pre-emergency constraints, and the result is the virtual muffling of discordant black voices in all publications.
``By picking up black leaders, preventing political meetings, and now really getting hold of the press, ... you can put the clamp down on society and go on for a long, long time,'' says David Welsh, a professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town.
To be sure, not everyone believes these ``alternative'' papers, as distinct from those owned by media conglomerates, are saviors of free speech. Some people take the official view that the publications are little more than propaganda fronts for revolutionary or banned groups.
Under the latest rules, the Minister of Home Affairs examines a series of editions of a journal. If he determines the material published constitutes a ``systematic'' fomenting of antigovernment political activities, he can warn its editors in the official gazette. If the violations persist, the minister can issue an order suspending publication for up to three months or imposing an ``in-house'' censor. At each step of the process, the editor can respond to the government's allegations.
Two Johannesburg newspapers - The Weekly Mail and Sowetan - have had several editions scrutinized. They have also submitted written responses explaining why they feel their work is not inflammatory. Three others - the Cape Town weekly South, the right-wing Die Stem, and the labor-affairs magazine Work in Progress - have been taken a further step and warned in the gazette.
And New Nation, which is in the final stage of the process, is awaiting word on its fate. A lawyer familiar with the complaints against all the publications says most deal with vilification of the South Africa Defense Forces and references to the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) or Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) - groups dedicated to ending apartheid, the government's segregationist policies.
``The things we've been warned about are ridiculous,'' insists Gabu Tugwana, New Nation's acting editor. (Its editor, Zwelakhe Sisulu, has been detained without charges for more than a year.) ``It's just that we cover stories that affect blacks at the grass-roots level. We're a last vestige of independent thought, and for the government, that's the same as being revolutionary.''
Not so, maintains Andries Engelbrecht, chief director of media relations for the Ministry of Home Affairs. ``There is a difference between criticism and revolutionary-supportive propaganda,'' he says. ``There is a propaganda onslaught against us, and we have newspapers in South Africa that have been established to further that onslaught.''
A conservative Christian group - Tradition, Family, Property Bureau for Southern Africa - takes a starker view, that: ``there is a most impressive coincidence between what the New Nation has supported and the strategic goals of international communism in Southern Africa.''
New Nation's lawyers say they will take the government to court if it moves to close or censor the paper. They believe they could win on technical grounds. Regardless of the outcome, for New Nation, however, analysts say the effect is a chilling one - ``a kind of Damocles sword'' over editors, one media attorney says.
Mr. Welsh says that is exactly what Pretoria has in mind. ``The government believes that if it can cocoon blacks from radical thinking, it can take the burn out.''
The effects already are apparent. Joe Thloloe, Sowetan's assistant editor, says the paper's lawyers routinely advise them to delete most mentions of the ANC, PAC, or its leaders. But the same story runs unedited in ``establishment'' papers owned by Sowetan's parent, Argus Printing and Publishing Co., says Mr. Thloloe.
But even establishment papers, which are aimed at white readers and generally give scant coverage to black issues, are feeling the heat. ``If you close one, everyone is affected,'' explains Harvey Tyson, editor of The Star, Argus' flagship paper and the country's largest. ``I employ 1,000 people in this building. What do I do for an encore if I get myself shut down?''