The South African government introduced a bill in Parliament today to prohibit publication of any news deemed to be offensive under South African law or to "the Christian view of life."
With its heavy parliamentary majority, the government is expected to have no trouble passing the legislation favored by Prime Minister John Vorster.
It is viewed as the most-draconian such measure in any Western parliamentary democracy, and is apparently intended to dismantle one of the few major sources of effective opposition.
Newspapers across the whole spectrum, including all the major Afrikaner papers, which normally support the Nationalist Party government, condemned the new press code. They were even joined in this by The Citizen, an English-language daily recently founded by Nationalists to try to counteract the relative racial liberalism of the English-language press.
South African government in Washington said that the new press code was submitted to newspaper publishers three weeks ago and that Vorster told them they could comment on it but that if they published any news of its consents, he would have it enacted with no further discussion. The newspaper sources said that the publishers replied that they had no desire to negotiate the new rules because they that would imply acceptance of the government's right to promulgate such laws.
The government outlined in Parliament the framework of legislation that would make journalists laible to stiff fines and indefinite suspension for violations of the new press code.
A new government-controlled press council is to be set up to monitor all South African publications.
It was not immediately clear whether foreign correspondents in South Africa would be affected by the new regulations.
The government proposal, a surprise move, drew shouts of "Nazi" and "Sieg Heil," from opposition members of Parliament.
The proposed legislation was passed 107 to 31 in the first of the traditional three readings in Parliament.
Local papers charged that it was the increasingly sharp press attacks on South Africa's race and security laws in recent months that led the government to introduce the bill.
L.E.A. Slater, chairman of the Argus newspaper chain, warned: "No country in the so-called free world has ever attempted to impose the sort of control envisaged by the South African government. The move can only bring further discredit to South Africa."
Even the new conservative and staunchly pro-government paper, The Citizen, announced that it was totally opposed to the newspaper bill.
A government report on the legislation, which will be published in full Saturday, says the new press code is not to be constructed as prohibiting fair and reasonable criticism. Before explaining the bill, Minister of Interior and Information Connie Mulder said the government values freedom of the press highly.
But in general language that allows room for wide interpretation, the proposed press code stipulates that news must be presented in the "correct context" and in a balanced manner without international or negligent departure from the facts, whether by distorion, exaggeration, misrepresentation or incorrect accentuation or by omissions or summarizing.
The proposed press code also instructs editors to take "exceptional care and responsibility" on:
Subjects that might damage the name of the country abroad.
Subjects that might cause friction or give offense in racial, ethnic or cultural matters, or incite persons to contravene the law.
Presentation of reports on the government-appointed Commission of Violence and Atrocities, now holding hearings on last year's racial unrest, which resulted in more than 500 deaths and thousands of injuries.
Violations of the press code will be judge by a Press Council, headed by a judge appointed by the president for a three-year term. Half of the remaining members will be nominated by the president, and the other half by the National Press Union, which represents all but one of the South Africa's daily papers.
Since the council leader will have a vote, government appointees will control the council.
It appears doubtful at this point, however, that the National Press Union will cooperate with the council concept.
Today's move culminates six years of growing tension between government and the press, triggered in 1971 when Prime Minister John Vorster said the local press misquoted him about a "hot pursuit" operation into Zambia.
A year later, Mulder warned local papers that "press freedom is linked to responsibility." In March , 1973 he hinted that the government might bring legislation to "insure press responsibility."
In August, 1974, the National Press Union attempted to pre-empt government action by passing its own code.
The first indication of renewed government interest in a press law came last week, when Vorster called in leaders of the National Press Union for negotiations on new press regulations. The union rejected the proposals and the meeting ended in deadlock, according to Union officials.
The new bill came as a surprise because the government has imposed other curbs on the press in recent months. The new defense bill for example broadens censorships of scurity matters to include internal unrest.
Just last week, the government revoked all three-month passes for white journalists to enter Soweto, Johannesburg's black township hit by riots last year. Now passes must be applied for on a daily basis.