The U.S. Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the dismissal of criminal charges that conservative Michigan newspaper publisher John McGoff failed to register as an agent for the government of South Africa.

The court ruled that the five-year statute of limitations on the alleged offense had already expired by October 1986, when McGoff was charged with failing to register as a South African agent under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.

McGoff, president of Global Communications Corp. of Williamson, Mich., was charged with acting as an agent of South Africa from February 1974 to August 1979 without registering as a foreign agent.

The charges related to McGoff's attempt in 1974 and 1975 to buy the now-defunct Washington Star for the South African government and his 1975 purchase of an interest in the Sacramento Union, which took a pro-Pretoria editorial stance.

A 1979 probe by the South African government found that Pretoria transferred $11.35 million to McGoff through a Swiss bank account to help finance the purchases.

The appellate court in a 2-to-1 ruling upheld U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Richey's decision late last year to dismiss the charges because they had not been filed within the five-year statutory limit.