The heated debate over South Africa's controversial newspaper bill has left a serious scar on the local press, despite the government's decision to withdraw the bill for a year to give papers a chance to "discipline" themselves.
Although the press won round one after great pressure from the National Publications Union and support from a few key officials, many journalists here feel the battle is far from over and that pressure during the coming year will be the same as if the bill had been passed by parliament this session.
Harvey Tyson, editor of the Johannesburg Star, said shortly after the bill was withdrawn by Prime Minister John Vorster 10 days ago: "Selfcensorship is no better than government control."
Several Johannesburg reporters say the Psychological impact of the bill has done immense damage to morale and approach to news coverage, despite general editorial commitment to continued scrutiny and comment on government policies.
A long-time reporter on a Sunday publication pointed out that, even before the bill, there were already more than 60 laws that allowed government action against individual journalists or publications, a fact which also still weighs heavily on local coverage.
The Rand Daily Mail editorialized after the bill's withdrawal: "Press freedom is already seriously circumscribed. An extensive network of laws --some affecting the press specifically --gravely diminish freedom to report and to comment.
"It would be naive and foolish to pretend that freedom of the press is now safe and secure."
The main question now is not only what the government will do in a year, but why the government -- usually stubborn about new legislation --has gone back on its decision to push the bill. The answer to that question may provide insight into future actions.
On the surface, Vorster's decision appears to be the result of three rounds of negotiations between his office, backed by four Cabinet ministers, and the press group. The morning after the third session, Vorster announced the temporary withdrawal, introduction of a government secretariat to monitor the press, and further discussions with the union on a new press code.
Behind the scenes, however, it appears that there were two other factors that led to the withdrawal.
The first was the unanticipated and harsh criticism from the usually conservative Afrikaans press, which has strong ties with the government-dominated National Party.Afrikaans is the language of 17th century Dutch settlers. In loud unison, Afrikaans editors blasted the bill as a major mistake that would elicit international condemnation.
There has been a growing division between the government and the traditionally progovernment Afrikaans press over the past 18 months.
Several Afrikaans editors have called for a major rethinking of government race policies. Circulation figures and reader response have indicated a swing in support of the papers' stance -- which could have implications on the National Party's constituency.
Observers here believe the reaction to the press bill, if it had not been withdrawn, would have led to further serious cracks in the tightknit Afrikaner community, which has always stressed the necessity of sticking together so the country's 4 million whites can continue to rule 18 million nonwhites.
The Afrikaans press has seveal close supporters in high level government circles.Several ministers and government officials serve on the boards of Afrikaans papers. The brother of Die Transvaler editor Willem de Klerk, for example, is a prominent member of Parliament. Insiders say the pleas of these officials with newspaper connections led to the backdown.
International reaction that led South African officials abroad to urge the government to postpone action. Newspaper sources in Johannesburg and Cape Town say the most outspoken was the former ambassador to the United States and United Nations, Roelof "Pik" Botha, who was sworn in as foreign minister today.
While the government anticipated criticism from foreign publications, it did not foresee the overwhelmingly negative reaction, according to one government source.
Botha apparently warned the government that at this crucial point it could not expect South Africa's few friends to continue behind-the-scenes support if Parliament passed the bill.
The bill has been publicized here as part of an overall strategy called the "politics of preservation" undertaken after serious disturbances in black townships last year.
Nationalist member of Parliament Hennie van der Walt explained recently: "The press legislation must not be seen on its own, but as part of a strategy to enable the government to keep things under control in this time of emergency."
The fact that the bill is seen as part of a broader plan led one editor to predict that the government will not be reluctant to reintroduce it next year if there have not been significant changes in press tone and coverage.