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S. Africa Curbs Impact Politics as Well as Press

December 22, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The biggest news in South Africa last week was not the continuing political violence or a new black protest against apartheid but an epidemic of equine influenza that has virtually halted horse racing during the Christmas holidays.

Every day the newspapers published long front-page articles as the virus swept one stable after another, as veterinarians puzzled over the disease and discussed its treatment, as the government debated whether to import a foreign vaccine, as provincial officials worried about the revenue they were losing from taxes on betting.

South Africa's deepening political crisis, described by many of the government's supporters and most of its opponents as certain to shape the future of the country, did not disappear from the newspapers, but press coverage was frequently reduced to a few short stories and perhaps an editorial.

"Censorship has reduced us to talking about the collapse of the Christmas racing season rather than the fate of the nation," Mary Burton, national president of Black Sash, a civil rights group, said the other day, decrying the impact of new government regulations that sharply curtail the reporting of civil unrest and "subversive statements."

"From the South African press today, we would seem more concerned about the health of our horses than about the several hundred children who have been detained without charge, and most likely will be held in prison over Christmas. . . .

"This, quite clearly, was the government's intent--to shift public attention away from the crisis toward something else, anything else, so that its actions would not be scrutinized and we would be lulled into a false sense that things are quiet. . . . Every day, momentous events occur, but all the public knows is what the authorities choose to disclose."

Dissidents Targeted

The full impact of the government's new press restrictions, introduced on Dec. 11 under the six-month-old national state of emergency, is just beginning to be felt, and opposition political groups are finding that they as much as the news media are targets of the crackdown.

A newsletter of the white opposition Progressive Federal Party was the first publication formally banned by government censors, who gave no reason for their decision. The newsletter would have carried detailed reports by party workers on political violence in Natal province. The party's national leadership has now resolved to challenge the regulations in court and to ignore them as it continues its regular political activities.

Three Johannesburg newspapers, meanwhile, were served with police orders prohibiting them from publishing news or advertisements about anti-apartheid protests over Christmas. Initially, statements by 13 groups, among them the South African Council of Churches, the United Democratic Front--the country's largest anti-apartheid group--and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, were banned. But on Saturday, the orders were extended to protest news of any nature concerning the protests.

Appeal Pending

One court appeal against the orders has been rejected, but another is to be heard today, and still others are planned.

Nine members of the End Conscription Campaign were arrested by security police and apparently will be charged under the new regulations with making "subversive statements." The regulations make it a crime to "discredit or undermine" the country's system of compulsory military service for white men.

After two weeks in detention, the nine, all white, were released on $70 bail each pending formal arraignment next month. If convicted, they could be sentenced to prison for up to 10 years.

In Cape Town and in the Witwatersrand region east of Johannesburg, police have banned all protests organized by the United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Council of Churches and a number of other groups demanding an end to emergency rule, freedom for political prisoners and withdrawal of troops from black townships.

Art Festival Banned

Activities supporting the United Democratic Front's "Christmas Against the Emergency" campaign were also prohibited. In Cape Town, an arts festival on the theme "Toward a People's Culture" was banned by the police as subversive.

The press is reporting "only a fraction, maybe 10% at most, of what we know that's happening," a staff member of the Sowetan, a black-edited newspaper, said in Johannesburg. "The rest of the stuff, and some of it is very major, we can't get permission to publish or don't even attempt to write. . . . There's a war in our (black) townships today, and we are forced to pretend that it is just a jolly nice picnic out there."

Even the skeletal daily "situation reports" from the government's Bureau for Information have made it clear that political violence, in which more than 2,300 people have died in the past two years, has perhaps abated but not stopped.

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