And now today's news, as brought to you by the South African government:The sudden massive failure of all telephones in South Africa's black townships during yesterday's nationwide general strike was due to "technical problems," not to police action."It is possible" that Winnie Mandela, wife of imprisoned black nationalist Nelson Mandela, has been placed under a "restriction order" in Soweto, but journalists are not allowed to report anything further on the matter.There is "greater confidence" and optimism, locally and internationally, in South Africa's future following last week's state of emergency and the roundup of hundreds of antiapartheid activists.The government has not "banned" broadcasting of live television and radio interviews with South Africans, "it's just that for the time being it will not take place until further notice."
Those were among the pieces of news and opinion that a government spokesman doled out to information-starved reporters this morning at a briefing by South Africa's Bureau for Information. The briefings, which have been held daily since a nationwide state of emergency was declared last Thursday, have become the only source of authorized news about the emergency and the civil unrest here under tight new press restrictions imposed in recent days.
They have also become an arena where recalcitrant and incredulous journalists grapple with reluctant bureaucrats to test the limits of what they can report and of the government's credibility during the comprehensive clampdown that Pretoria has imposed on press coverage.
The atmosphere in Room 159 of the Union Buildings, the government's administrative headquarters here, seems at times Orwellian. Today's spokesman, Leon Mellett, warned journalists that they could not report on what their own questions were if those questions revealed information in violation of the emergency rules.
"I would like to get one thing clear," said Mellett, a police brigadier and a former journalist. He then offered the following clarification:
"We don't want this as a forum now to issue incidents of any kind whatsoever and to try and make that as a legal platform for information. I'm not going to allow that. I'm sorry."
What Mellett seemed to be saying was that journalists could not report on police activities that they asked questions about, unless bureau officials confirmed those activities.
But at another point today, Mellett told a journalist from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that "you can report what you said" about an incident in which she alleged that Nigel Wrench, a CBC radio journalist, had been picked up in Johannesburg and threatened with physical violence.
Because of the emergency regulations, I cannot identify in this article who it was who allegedly picked up and threatened Wrench. I also cannot tell you about other alleged incidents involving a church congregation in Elsiesrivier, a township for people of mixed race outside Cape Town, and residents at a University of Witswatersrand dormitory in Soweto.
Journalists must tiptoe through a legal mine field daily in seeking to report the news while staying within the regulations. For example, Mellett said police were investigating those journalists who reported the order served on Winnie Mandela last night. They might have violated the ban on unauthorized reporting of police conduct, he said. It was only late tonight that the bureau confirmed an order had indeed been imposed, although it refused to provide details.
A reporter who suggested that the sudden breakdown of all township telephones yesterday was anything other than a timely accident, could be guilty of violating the same regulation. When an American reporter suggested that overseas readers might view his explanation with skepticism, Mellett compared the breakdown to the 1965 power blackout in New York City. "We don't cut telephones," he said.
Similarly, anyone who cast doubt on the government's claim that international confidence in South Africa is increasing could find himself charged with making a "subversive statement."
The emergency regulations bar such statements, as well as all unauthorized reporting on the "conduct" of security forces and the publication of the names or identities of the estimated 2,000 people who have been detained since Thursday. They also prohibit journalists from entering any black township, a provision that today kept reporters of The Sowetan newspaper from covering sports events, according to news editor Thami Mazwai.
The penalty for these offenses is up to 10 years in prison or an $8,000 fine.
The government says all of these restrictions are temporarily necessary to restore law and order in South Africa, where more than 1,700 people have died in civil unrest during the past two years. Officials have not said when the emergency might be lifted.
The government spokesman said today that "the bureau wants to state clearly that the daily information which is given to the media at this conference reflects the factual situation in the country. Any suggestion to the contrary is false and we want you to please take note of this."
South African newspaper editors, who have had to work under various censorship restrictions for years, say they are coping as best they can with the new rules. They are especially troubled by the ban on "subversive statements."
As defined in the emergency regulations, that ban "means anything the government wants it to mean," said Anthony Heard, editor of the Cape Times. "What we're really dealing with here is naked power."
Ken Owen, editor of Business Day here, said the provision of the emergency that allows Law and Order Minister Louis le Grange to seize or shut down publications that "in his opinion" are subversive crosses the line between authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
But even these veteran editors disagree on the limits of their discretion. Heard's paper omitted mention of Mandela's restriction order last night, while Owen's printed it on the front page. Owen smiled when asked about the article and cited yet another regulation that says any order promulgated under the emergency shall be published and made known to the public.
Heard and other editors say government officials seem to be making up the rules as they go along. Asked at a meeting with editors whether they could quote statements by Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher that might be deemed to encourage withdrawal of investment in South Africa, Deputy Information Minister Louis Nel reportedly said yes. Asked about Jesse Jackson, Nel's reply was: "He's a rabble-rouser."
What about quoting Lord Acton's 19th century adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely? "It could be subversive," Nel replied.