The South African press today sharply criticized the government's press control bill introudced in Parliament yesterday, which calls for a stiff new newspaper code and a state-controlled press council to monitor all publications.
Every paper in the country - including the traditionally pro-government Afrikaans publications - blasted the government's proposed legislation as a threat to press freedom and democarey in South Africa.
The growing criticism by the Afrikaner press is a major threat to the government, also dominated by Afrikaners - descendants of the 17th centry Dutch settlers who claim rights on the continent as African's only "white tribe."
The strong press reaction led to hints from officials today that the government might consider opening new negotiations with the National Press Union or that the bill might be sent back to a parliamentary select committee, which would hear appeals from press representatives.
There is little likelihood, however, that any significant revisions will be made even if new talks are opened. In announcing the bill yesterday, Minister of Information and Interior Connie Mulder said the government fully backed the proposals, with advance realization that press and overseas reaction would be negative.
The Rand Daily Mail, one of the government most outspoken critics, editorialized on the front page: Party rule can match the damage that will be done by the measure now before Parliament. For the limited press freedom which we still enjoy is the one remaining thread of respectiability in the tattered cloak of democracy which this government wears so uneasily."
The Natal Mercury scolded the government: "With economic and political pressures all about him and his government's policies leading white South Africa rapidly toward confrontation with the country's blacks, the prime minister, desperate in the cul-de-sac of his follies, has finally turned in anger on the morror of it all, the press."
One Johannesburg editor pointed out in private that the only point on which overseas critics praised South African was on its relative press freedom, especially in comparison with black African where the majority of governments exercise at least partial control of national publications. "Under this wicked bill we will lose the one thing we had going for us," he said.
Mulder said that the South African public had to be protectd against misrepresentations, distortion, dishonest and malicious reporting, ascertainable lies and gross invasions of privacy - all areas that the new bill covers.
Observers here feel that the government may have miscalculated the degree of press resistance and its political impact, especially from the highly influential Afrikaans press. Once advocates of government policies, the white Afrikaans press has become increasingly critical of the government over the past year, suggesting that officials rethink the long-term impact of their race and security policies.
In August, five leading Afrikaans journals wrote editorials despairing over the government's lethargy in responding to black demands that could prevent renewed racial unrest.
The fivepapers backed reforms that just six months earlier would have been considered racial hereby against the National Party.
A strong and united stand by the Afrikaners - 60 per cent of South Africa's white population - has always been considered essential to continued white control of the county, where blacks outnumber whites by almost five to one.
Cracks in Afrikaner ranks endanger the current government's strength - and those cracks are increasingly evident, according to Dr. Willem de Klerk, editor of Die Transvaaler and brother of a member of Parliament, F.W. de Klerk.
As proof, Dr. De Klerk pointed out that the circulation of the most critical Afrikaans papers has increased significantly as the publications have become more critical.
The English-language Sunday Times of Johannesburg recently commented on the Afrikaner divisions: "Something is on the boil in Afrikaner circles. If the government appears to be dangerously immobile in the present crisis, many of its most influential supporters are not."
Afrikaner columnist Fleur de Villiers pointed out the possible implications: the Afrikaner government "can neither reject or isolate its own press - a vital pillar - withouth the eventual collapse of the whole [Afrikaner] edifice and a fundamental change in its future structure."
The government may also find that the bill has a negative economic impact, since several foreign businesses with investments in South Africa have already reacted negatively to the proposed press curbs.
Graham Hatton, editor of the influential Financial Mail magazine, said today that American business interests had made it clear to him that the government should not underestimate the damage to investment and trade links if the newspaper bill is passed, as is expected. The new press curbs would make it difficult for businessmen to determine whether the country is stable enough for new or strengthered financial ties.
South Africa's troubled economy is now heavily dependent on foreign loans, investment and trade. Rumors over the past few months of possible cutbacks by foreign investors have triggered small waves of panic among local business leaders - a concern that is not likely to be eased by the overseas reaction to the proposed new press restrictions.