The South African government proposed a bill today that would make it a crime for the press to publish allegations of government corruption without obtaining permission from specially appointed government officials.
The bill was characterized by South African editor Rex Gibson as "the single widest restriction on press freedom in South Africa." It is practically assured of passage by the overwhelming parlimentary majority of the ruling National Party.
The latest restriction, which in effect halts investigate reporting not approved by the government, is one of serval new press curbs introduced in this parliamentary session. When passed, they will greatly reduce South Africa's press freedom.
The new proposal is widely regarded as a consequence of press rev-elations on a major influence-buying scandal that embarrassed the government overseas, caused dissension in the National Party and at one time appeared to threaten Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's administration.
At this juncture, however, the Botha government is holding tough and ignoring calls for an election from the opposition and the Afrikaans press pending a final report from a Botha-appointed commission of inquiry, which is due at the end of this month.
The bill published today, popularly known as the "anti-rumormongering" bill, calls for appointment of an "advocate general."
No allegations of bribery or corruption in public service would be printed before being laid out before the "advocate-general" in a signed affidavit and being investigated by him in secret proceedings. His report would then go to Parliament or a select parliamentary committee if he thinks that public knowlegge of its contents would effect national security. The recipients of the report would then decide whether publication should take place at this stage.
The bill provides for a $5,750 fine, a one-year jail term or both, for anyone violating the law.
Other proposed restraints on the press expected to be passed this parliamentary session include severe penalties-up to $11,500 and five years in jail-for publishing any "untrue matter" about the police; prohibitions against investigate reporting on deaths arising from unnatural circumstances, for example, while in police custody; and finally,a ban on publication of any information about how South Africa receives and produces its oil.
The last restraint specifically mentions foreign journalists living in South Africa.
Ironically, the new proposal comes at a time when the South African courts have made several important judgments reinforcing press freedom, including one that ordered Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger to pay court costs for an action he lost against the opposition Rand Daily Mail.
It is believed the new bill is the government's answer to the refusal of the National Newspaper Union, a group of South African publishers, to agree to a harsher self-governing code as requested by the Botha government. A meeting between the government and the union last December was extremely acrimonious, according to one source.
"With this bill we enter a new era of secrecy in which press freedom will have to hover on the brink of extinction," said Gibson, whose Sunday Express broke the initial stories in the scandal.
"What the law will actually do is try to muzzle the media so that honest investigate reporters will never again catch politicians and public servants off guard, embarrassed and discredited."
The South African government has always been reluctant to act against the press out of fear of cramping its ability to boast that it has one of the freest presses on the African continent.
The fact that the government is now casting aside this consideration and is introducing the bill in the face of considerable protest from its sympathetic Afrikaans press indicates how far the government is now willing to go to control criticism.
"I can say now that I regard it as a totalitarian measure which could only have a place in a fascist, communist and despotic system," said opposition politician Vause Raw.