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Pretoria sends signals that it's serious about press restrictions

South Africa's government has issued strong, back-to-back signals of its resolve to keep a close watch on local news-media coverage of the country's political conflict. The more dramatic signal came in Parliament from President Pieter Botha. In reply to opposition queries earlier this week, he confirmed he had personally requested the head of the national television network to amend its evening-news treatment of the Aug. 24 resignation of the Rev. Alan Hendrickse, the Colored (mixed-race) cabinet minister.

Saying he had acted ``in the interests of the truth,'' Mr. Botha added, ``If I deem it necessary under similar circumstances in the future, I will do so again.''

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This was the first known instance of such intervention and first official acknowledgment of direct government control over the nominally independent South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Government and SABC officials have long rebutted opposition charges that it echoes official political thinking.

Botha's remarks coincided with what appeared to be the first use of last week's new censorship machinery for controlling antigovernment newspapers' alleged ``promoting or fanning'' of political unrest. Three journals concentrating on coverage of black politics - Johannesburg's Weekly Mail, the weekly South in the Cape Town area, and the labor-affairs magazine Work in Progress - were directed to submit post-publication copies of each edition for perusal by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Under the rules, a newly formed committee of unnamed media ``experts'' will report its findings on affected publications to the minister. If he deems that material in the publications constitutes ``systematic'' fanning on any of a wide range of antigovernment political activities, he can warn the editors. If the violations persist, the warning would be formally made public, after which the minister can suspend publication for up to three months or post an ``in house censor.''

In parliamentary debate over the Hendrickse resignaton, Botha said he had stepped in with a ``request'' that the SABC correct a false rendering of his dispute with Mr. Hendrickse. The SABC had broadcast Hendrickse's statement, in which he said he was quitting in protest at government race policies. Botha's contention was that, having warned Hendrickse over political remarks that represented a breach of Cabinet discipline, Hendrickse, in effect, had no choice but to step down.

Botha's remarks to Parliament came after the Hendrickse broadcast sparked a major controversy. Local papers at one point reported that SABC director Riaan Eksteen was to be fired over the broadcast. When asked if Mr. Eksteen's job had been brought into question, Botha said: ``Not by me and not at my instructions.''

But he did say that during the Aug. 24 news show, ``I personally phoned the director-general of the SABC and requested him to carry out my initial request, namely to broadcast the full version of the statement issued on that day by my office ... as well as the contents of my letter [to Hendrickse] and his reply to me.''

``The first news report was incomplete and not to my liking, to allow the country to understand the true facts,'' Botha said.

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Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.

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