The question whether foreign correspondents should carry a gun in the countryside of Rhodesia is causing a lot of squirming here, more than any of the government's various censorship decrees.
For most of the increasing number of Western correspondents here,reporting the war is a professional task and the idea of having to shoot back at guerrillas is abhorrent.
But the problems for neutral correspondents, or those sympathetic to the black nationalist cause for that matter, are becoming trickier. The truth is that no road in Rhodesia today, including paved highways linking major cities, is safe from guerrilla ambush. And now that the nationalists have SA7 missiles and have shot down one Air Rhodesia passenger plans, no aircraft is secure either.
Most editors forbid their reporters to bear arms, taking the position that if conditions are so dangerous the story is not worth risking their lives or the neutrality of the newspaper, radio or television network.
Yet the Rhodesian was story has become too dramatic and important for correspondents to remain in Sallisbuty. Thus a few television crews, photographers and reporters have begun arming themselves for their trips to the countryside on the theory that if they are ambushed a few shots in the air may scare off the guerrillas.
The issue of bearing arms came to the fore last spring when a British television reporter-photographer, Richard Cecil, was killed with a rifle in his hand while on an operation with a small elite Rhodesian army unit.
Cecil, the scion of a well known Rhodesian colonial family, may have been doing more than just toting his rifle, according to some reports. But even the most detached correspondents are facing the question because the entire country has now became a battlefield.
There is nothing resembling a front, as there was - more or less - in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Nor can a reporter go into a relatively secure area held by one faction or another, as during the Angolan civil war. Yet it is difficult ot see or hear nay fighting. Rare is the Western correspondent who has witnessed a "contact" between the army and any of the estimated 10,000 guerrillas operating in the country.
Still the signs of war are every where - truckloads of troops rolling along the highways, soldiers and civilians checking in their rifles at hotel reception desks, special antibomb police units patrolling downtown Salisbury and occasionally blowing up strange parcels, and daily military communiques about how many more whites and blacks have just been added to the list of about 10,000 recorded war deaths.
Being white, as most Western correspondents are, in a war where the guerrillas tend to regard any white as a target, is an additional hazard. But being black is no guarantee of safety either.
The only correspondent to have disappeared so far is a highly respected Rhodesian black, Justin Nyoka, who worked for the British Broadcasting Corp. and the South African and Daily Mall. He was kidnaped from his home by guerrillas in August and has not been seen since.
In these circumstances, there is plenty of "color" for visiting correspondents to paint a picture of the war and many official and unofficial sources in Salisbury to give them a good sense of what is really going on.
Compared to the vast majority of black African countries, Rhodesia, even in wartime, is an easy place to work, and black and white leaders are very accessible.
Yet there is military censorship, which in theory has now been extended even to "political-military" commentary. There is also a system for keeping correspondents on a short chain.
This is how it works.
Upon arriving at Salisbury airport, a correspondent gets a "temporary " work permit good for 24 or 48 hours and is told to report to the Ministry of Information for an extension.
If the correspondent is not on the government's blacklist, the permit is validated for the number of weeks requested. A new journalist will probably only get a permit for a week or two at a time, however.
The next hurdle is obtaining a general military clearance to go into operational areas. This can take a few days to a week or more. Even a clearance does not ensure that the military will take you on operations. In fact, this "treat" tends to be reserved for a small number of resident correspondents and a few favored visitors.
The government does offer occasional "facility trips" to war zones for any correspondent. If one accepts, one is required to submit copy to censorship at the Combined Military Operations Office in Salisbury.
Its judgement of what is fit to print depends partly on the whim of the duty officer. Generally, however, commentary of a military nature regarded ad delicate is deleted and also that reflecting on general conditions in the district just visited. This at least was my recent experience with military censorship. This story was filed from Lusaka, Zambia, after a reporting trip in Rhodesia.
For local reporters, the censors are much tougher. Anything that might lower white morale is libale to be deleted. Reference to the outside guerrilla groups and their internal organizations is forbidden. The word "guerrillas" regularly is replaced by "terrorists." Military communique must be printed without elaboration or commentary.
In theory, even foreign correspondents are not supposed to elaborate on military communiques. In fact, many do without being expelled. Similarly, many foreign journalists have decided to ignore, the decree regarding political or military commentary and send their stories without submitting them for censorship.
The government has not pressed the issue, apparently embarrassed by its own sweeping decree, which, if strictly applied, would require a legion of censors to read all the outgoing copy.
Just how absurd the application of censorship can be was brought home recently in the case of reporting on the "protected villages," the local version of the American "strategic hamlets" in Vietnam. Until a few weeks ago, the "PVs" were a sensitive subject for the government and a particularly adverse report on conditions for Africas living in them was grounds for losing one's work permit or even being barred from the country.
But in mid-September, after the government had disbanded 70 of the "Pvs," Prime Minister Ian Smith astounded foreign correspondents at a press conference by referring to them as "prisons." In effect, he was conceding that the adverse reports were not that inaccurate after all.
Guerrilla war ended yesterday with an official death toll of nearly 800.
Military headquarters announced that 25 people were killed in the preceding 48 hours. In addition, the military has said it killed in the preceding 48 hours.In addition, the military has said it killed hundreds of guerrillas during last week's raid into Mozambique, where 25 guerrilla bases were said to have been destroyed.
Military communiques have listed in a total of 791 war dead in Rhodesia in September - an average of 26 a day. This compared with 15 a day last month and eight a day last spring.
The biracial transitional government, released the draft of a constitution for a black-ruled Zimbabwe, the African name for Rhodesia.
The draft formalized objectives set out in the March 3 majority rule agreement signed by the four leaders of the transitional government. Publication of the constitution has been awaited as the key to setting in motion a series of events designed to lead Rhodesia to black majority rule, in theory by Dec. 31.