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No 'Pictoral Evidence' of Brutality : S. Africa Restricts Media but Violence Is Unabated

December 09, 1985|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When South African policemen shot and killed 20 blacks during a funeral procession at Langa eight months ago, the world reacted with outrage, denouncing the minority white government here and its apartheid policies.

But when policemen shot 14 blacks on a Sunday night in Queenstown last month and 13 more during a peaceful protest march in Mamelodi outside Pretoria four days later, the incidents went almost unnoticed abroad.

The main reason for that muted international reaction, many here believe, was the restrictions the South African government imposed a month ago--before the Queenstown shootings--that sharply limit the news media's coverage of the country's continuing civil strife.

"The government and the police seem to believe that if no one is watching, they can get away with murder, sometimes literally," said Jan van Eck, a member of the liberal white opposition Progressive Federal Party's unrest-monitoring team in Cape Town.

"Barring the news media from the major unrest areas has removed the independent witnesses to the police action--really a war now--against our black and Colored (mixed-race) communities. And preventing the taking of any photographs or videotapes of those actions has ensured there will be no pictorial evidence of the increasing police brutality here."

Using his broad powers under the state of emergency decreed in July, Louis le Grange, the minister for law and order, prohibited photographers and television crews from being at the scene of any unrest in the districts--now 30 in all--under emergency rule. And he required reporters to obtain police permission to be present during any unrest or police action to deal with it.

Le Grange justified the action with the argument that the presence of journalists, particularly television crews and press photographers, had become "a catalyst to further violence."

"While the government has no intention of curtailing the right of the public to be informed of current events," Le Grange said, "it has decided to curb the presence of television and other audio-visual equipment during unrest situations in emergency areas."

Policemen during the last month have frequently interpreted Le Grange's orders as prohibiting all journalists from entering unrest areas.

At Mamelodi, a black township outside Pretoria, the capital, which is not under emergency rule, they forced most reporters, photographers and television teams to leave at gunpoint. At Queenstown in eastern Cape province, which also is not under emergency rule, the police sealed off the black township, arrested a CBS television crew and local journalists and held them until police headquarters issued instructions to release them.

'Arrest Warrant'

"A camera to a policeman now is virtually an arrest warrant, if not an invitation to commit mayhem," a veteran South African photographer said, asking not to be quoted by name. "Even before the restrictions, the police had been targeting us with tear gas, rubber bullets and even birdshot, and now they feel that they have ministerial approval for whatever they want to do against us. . . .

"They quite obviously regard us as a check on their actions, and when they could not remove us through intimidation and even violence, they managed to do so through the law--by making it illegal to photograph unrest or police actions to deal with it. From my point of view, they simply do not want people, both in South Africa and abroad, to know what they are doing."

Police have also tried to prevent local newspapers from publishing photographs of other disorders--an unruly crowd waiting for a clothing sale to begin, a soccer riot, a traffic accident--in what South African journalists see as moves toward formal press censorship.

Writers Restricted

Foreign correspondents, meanwhile, have found themselves effectively put "on probation" by J. Christoffel Botha, the minister for home affairs. He has ordered that no journalists be granted entry visas or allowed to remain in South Africa through renewal of their work permits without his personal review of their dossiers.

Fewer than 40 visas and work permits have been granted or renewed in the last two months, according to government officials, and more than 700 cases are pending in his office.

Louis Nel, deputy minister of information, said last week that the new restrictions have proved neither "so onerous . . . nor undermined democracy" and have helped bring a substantial, 49% reduction in the number of "serious incidents of unrest," from 2,790 in October to 1,435 in November.

In Cape Town, Le Grange asserted last week, the police are gradually bringing the unrest under control and restoring law and order to the country's troubled black and mixed-race ghettos. The state of emergency would be progressively lifted, he said, noting that President Pieter W. Botha (no relation to the home affairs minister) had ended it in eight districts last week and six others in late October.

Lethal Month

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