South Africa's restrictions on news media coverage of racial unrest are so vague that journalists practically have to censor themselves to avoid fines and arrest, executives of major international news organizations said yesterday.
However, almost all of those contacted said they want to maintain news teams there and will push to cover news to the permissible limit without jeopardizing reporters, photographers and crews.
"The restrictions are particularly pernicious in that they impose a form of self-censorship in a very gray area. That puts the on-site journalist in a position of great vulnerability," CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter said.
"In keeping with our standards, our journalists will honor to the best of our ability the laws of the country where they are working," he said.
Robert Murphy, ABC vice president for news, said, "We are going to cover it any way we possibly can and to abide by the restrictions placed on us. But because of the way the restrictions are worded, there's no way of knowing precisely how the government interprets them until after you've already done what you're going to do."
Yesterday, as many South Africans observed the 10th anniversary of the start of rioting in the vast township of Soweto that continued for about 10 months throughout South Africa and left at least 600 dead, reporters were banned from black townships and prohibited from reporting on police or military activity without authorization by the government.
In effect, the regulations kept all but a few black reporters who live in townships from viewing events firsthand. The government information bureau became the official source of information about events that most professional journalists there could not witness. The restrictions virtually stopped the flow of television images and still pictures from black areas.
Richard Beene, desk supervisor here for the French news agency Agence France-Presse, said the steady daily flow of photographs from South Africa in recent weeks dwindled yesterday to two depicting church services in Johannesburg where Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu spoke.
"That was all they were allowed to take," Beene said. "They are in danger of being arrested if they photograph police activity or demonstrators or any events that they would have photographed before."
After the government banned interviews with the Rev. Allan Boesak, an antiapartheid leader, NBC used videotape last night of Boesak speaking into a telephone while "Nightly News" anchorman Tom Brokaw interjected the questions that had been asked hours earlier.
"We could not do a direct interview," said Brokaw.
Brokaw, recalling that a cameraman who was hacked to death last week in a black area was formerly of NBC, said, "Everybody here is feeling a little tense" about the safety of coworkers in Johannesburg.
Several newspaper and television editors also said they will try to make clear to readers how much of a story may be missing because of the restrictions.
"We will say in the story each day that access to sources . . . access to events has been restricted and that we are operating under very tight reins," said Alvin Shuster, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. "We will tell the reader each day why the reader is not getting a full and complete report."
Shuster and others said limits on their correspondents will mean emphasizing what one executive called "alternative" sources. Many of these include travelers from South Africa, diplomats sending information home and businesses with contacts in South Africa.
"We've been trying to find every alternative method we can of getting the information" without breaking the rules, said Warren Hoge, foreign editor of The New York Times. "If we can possibly do it, we want to stay there," Hoge said. "If at some point it becomes intolerable, then we will think of something else."
Several news executives said they believe that the government restrictions will backfire, adding to an international outcry against a nation already under fire for imposing a state of emergency last week.
"They just wind up hurting their own government even more," said Michael Getler, foreign editor of The Washington Post, "and I'm confident we will ultimately find out what went on in there these past few days in some detail."
Getler also said one of the toughest prohibitions for some journalists involves the ban on naming persons detained or arrested. "If a well-known person disappears, it's a real dilemma," he said.