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Press has key role in unfolding S. African crisis

THE state of the press in South Africa today is disturbing. Numerous laws and regulations bear down on newspapers which are trying to do their job of informing the public on a great unfolding human tragedy. Almost wherever you turn there are restrictions -- on defense, police, prisons, strategic materials, quoting banned persons, endangering internal security, fostering boycotts or the aims of banned organizations. The genius is that this is not left to an office censor. ... The censor exists in the editor's own head. For, the way the law is structured, you may publish if you wish, but then you can be prosecuted for what you publish if it contravenes a maze of laws and regulations.

Publish and be charged is the watchword, as quite a few editors have discovered in various courtrooms of the country, including me -- over the quoting of remarks made in an interview by Mr. Oliver Tambo, leader of the African National Congress....

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The pressures on the press are not only legal. They include warnings and threats from government ministers, prudence on the part of proprietors who must take responsibility for valuable assets, and the natural reluctance by editors and reporters to land their papers in court....

At the base of the South African government's approach to the press is an awkward ambivalence.

The press is most valuable to officials abroad who wish to point to a free press as one of the reasons why the country should be treated better, invested in, traded with, etc. And liberal editors are pretty used to being paraded around like the elephant man, as a sort of performing oddity, so that foreign visitors can see real, live, breathing, campaigning editors.

But the security establishment is highly critical of the role of the press, and clearly believes that it is a major part of the problem in South Africa. ``Hang the messenger'' is a knee-jerk response from officialdom when things go wrong....

The economic pressures on newspapers have become severe, too.... Circulations are static or falling. Two-digit inflation, for a dozen years without letup, has eroded the economic base....

The death, for one or other reason, of great newspapers such as the Rand Daily Mail (indeed, half a dozen other lesser-known titles have disappeared in the past two years) has disillusioned journalists, many of whom have emigrated....

The key thing for the press to do is to hang in there while the crisis unfolds, doing its job as reporter and commentator.

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I see the role of the press as the oil in the negotiating machinery for a new South Africa. It can help both white and black, in this potentially great country, to find one another, providing a unique bridge based on a readership which in many cases is half white and half black....

Whether it will hang in there, or succumb to political or economic predations, remains to be seen. Maybe one day its problems with black nationalism will be as great as current problems with Afrikaner nationalism and, previously, with imperial power. But, whatever one might think of that, there is certainly still a job to be done.

From a recent speech by A.H. Heard, editor of the Cape Times, to the International Press Institute in Vienna. 30--{et