A sweeping new set of laws - possibly the most far-reaching of their kind in Eastern Europe - goes into effect here next week aimed at repressing dissent and restricting East Germans' contacts with Westerners.
The measures include making it a treasonable to even verbally pass unclassified information to "foreign organisations," if the information is deemed by authorities to be damaging to the interests of the German Decocratic Republic. The crime is punishable by two to 12 years in jail.
What information might be viewed as damaging and which foreign organizations are not defined in the new laws. it is the vagueness of the rulings, combined with their broad scope, that has sent off an alarm throughout the ranks of East Germany's relatively small but lively band of internal critics, authors and intellectuals who have thus far managed to maintain contact with Westerners, especially journalists and book publishers.
The new laws extend to harsher penalties for relatively rare, minor crimes such as vandalism, suggesting that authorities see things across the spectrum of East German society that make them nervous.
Although it is not clear how, or even if, the new laws will be enforced, one East German writer told a visiting Western correspondent, "after Aug. 1, we better keep our distance for a while". Another said he did not care if he went to jail and would try to maintain contact.
East German authorities are reported to have unofficially told Western diplomats here that the new measures are not aimed so much at foreign journalists as at West German correspondents, especially television reporters, based in East Berlin. Since 80 percent of East German homes can receive West German broadcasts, many East Germans get news and criticism of their own country that they otherwise would not receive.
Western diplomats here describe the new laws as a step backward from the 35-nation Helsinki Agreement of 1975 designed to increase individual freedom and reduce barriers for journalists.
The laws also come at a time of economic stagnation, with widespread rumors that a sharp increase in gasoline and other commodity prices, which have been kept artificially low, may come soon. Hungary and Czechoslovakia announced increases last week, and the moves received unusually detailed treatment in the official East German press.
It has been speculated that the rulings taking effect next week may also be intended to provide the legal basis for state action if civil unrest or outspokeness accompanies any price increases.
The package of laws, involving dozens of measures, was passed quietly, unanimously and without debate by the East German parliament on June 28. No details were reported in the official party newspaper, so the public at large remains unaware of the scope of the rulings. Critics and intellectuals are well aware of the contents of the new laws, which were published in the official law journal.
One new law provides a five-year jail term for those passing on written material or manuscript deemed damaging to East German interests, a convenient way to stop authors from getting their books printed in the West. Previously, leading East German writes such as Stefan Heym and physicist Robert Havemann were fined on weak charges of having committed currency violations involving proceeds from their books.
There is now a three-year jail term for distributing written material judged to be denigrating or disturbing to the socialist way of life.
Previous laws referred only to supplying secret material to organizations known to be working against the Communist state.
The new laws go beyond those passed in April when, after full Western reports about unpopular government rulings on holding foreign currency, Western journalists based in East Berlin were restricted from interviewing people with official permission and were required to announce plans for trips outside the city at least one day in advance.
The new rulings, in effect, close the door on contacts by increasing sharply the possible consequences for dissidents or others willing to be interviewed.
Theoretically, the laws could even extend to East German citizens who include criticism in letters to relatives in the West.
"It gives wide latitude to the security service to bring charges against people for things, that on the surface, seem harmless enough to most societies," one source said.
The new laws also change the penalty from a fine to jail for taking part in antigovernment demonstrations, increase the jail term for those convicted of joining an underground group, and legalize internal exile of people who have completed jail sentences but whose movements are to be restricted. This could, for example, cover the previously awkard "house arrest" of physicist Havemann, which lasted for many months in spite of dubious legal grounds.
In addition, authorities have increased penalties for more traditional crimes such as burglary and vandalism. This is surprising, on the surface, because East Germany is almost crime-free by western standards.
Yet, as one East German says, prolonged economic stagnation has led to signs of unrest and a rise in minor crime.
"There is now a very visible spread of law and middle level corruption," the source said. "Not corruption in the Western sense, but of things like not being able to get any repair work done without a big tip. There's a lot of building material being stollen for private work. A lot of petty pilfering, greasing of palms, book juggling that shows a fairly prevalent breakdown of the traditionally high German morality."
Hooliganism or pointless crime, is also rising, which apparently has police and politicians worried, another source said.
"It's partly a prosperity thing," another East German adds, "part of the urbanization and high-rise housing" built up during postwar reconstruction.
"Nobody's worried about getting three meals a day but a lot of young people are frustrated by a lot of things and," because of travel restictions, "they can't work off their energy by hitchhiking to exotic places or even moving into the countryside on their own," he said.
Precisely what is behind the new laws is a matter of intense private speculation here.
Some believe the new laws are simply in the Germanic tradition of codifying everything to plug loopholes in possible future legal actions. Most observers and critics, however, do not take such a charitable view.
The mode prevalent view is that Communist Party chief Erich Honeckar is more troubled than in the past by the dissidents and that, perhaps under pressure from hardliners in his government, he is firing his strongest warning shot to keep things from getting out of hand.
The widespread feeling here is that Honecker's government is trapped econimically, with no improvement in sight and rising energy costs almost certain to make things, worse. East Germans enjoy probably the highest living standard in Eastern Europe, but the econimic well-being of East German families has remained on a plateau now for several years during which the steady rise in expectations of the past has been frustrated.
"Nobody is talking about catching up with West Germany anymore," said one East German."The crisis and breakdown of capitalism that we have been told of for many years keeps getting postponed, and the very respectable but not overwhelming achievements of socialism begin to look a bit thin," he said.
"There is also a new feeling of resentment of the upper classes, the more priviledged. And it is not just toward bureaucrats but artists as well, who are allowed to travel to the West," says the same source.
Indeed, there is no great sympathy for the authors and others who are favorites of the Western press, but who have many of the privileges most East germans do not.
The key issue in East Germany today is economic, not intellectual. And, while some Western press accounts have portrayed the East as on the brink of upheaval, most people here don't see it that way.
"There is dissatisfaction but not unrest," one writer says. "There is nothing like a ground swell of opposition with a name."
"Maybe a revolution would be a good thing,"another resident jokes. "but the attitude is really simple: 'Let's wait till the lottery results are known and the summer holidays are over.'" CAPTION: Picture, Sisters reunite in East Berlin, where new laws will stifle criticism even in letters to relatives in the West. UPI