Leaders of the literary supplement in one of Mexico City's daily newspapers were not sure what to make of an edition that came out earlier this month in the midst of the new president's campaign for "moral renovation."

Inset on several pages, with no relation whatsoever to the text, were Beardsley-like drawings of young girls in a variety of positions that, it can be said with some assurance, have yet to appear in the columns of general-circulation U.S. papers.

"It was a sort of joke, a mockery," said Fernando Benitez, the curmudgeonly editor of the section in Unomasuno. "I ordered them published simply because they are considered immoral."

The sketches were but one skirmish in a growing battle over press freedom that touches on the borderlines between liberty and libel, literature and license, corruption in the government and the corruption of the media.

A senior spokesman for the new Mexican administration talks of an overall effort "to dignify and to order the relations between the Mexican press and the government." The spokesman put the issue in the context of President Miguel de la Madrid's emphasis on a new morality that is supposed to affect business and the media as well as public officials.

Interior Secretary Manuel Bartlett Diaz told the Mexican Senate that the intent of new press laws is not to abridge freedoms guaranteed in the Mexican constitution but to curb "journalistic terrorism," which amounts to the extortion of government officials and public figures who are threatened with attack in the press unless they pay reporters to leave them alone.

Reporters complain they are being muzzled.

An anti-obscenity law--the one at which Benitez targeted the young girls--was enacted by the last administration in what appeared to be an awkward last-minute effort to adopt the moral tone proclaimed by this one. De la Madrid overturned it 10 days after he took office.

But de La Madrid's own amendments to the civil and penal code make "moral damage" an actionable offense and "disloyalty" to the government--including the publication of materials supplied by "disloyal" officials--punishable by heavy fines and up to seven years in jail.

"Moral damage," according to the legislation, is "injury" to "feelings, affections, beliefs, respect, honor, reputation, the secrecy of private life and physical integrity." What the Mexican law calls "disloyalty" would be called "leaking" in Washington.

The left-wing investigative magazine Proceso proclaimed on its cover that "the initiatives of the president threaten to convert information into a crime." It suggested that the only way to win a civil suit for "moral damage" done to a public official is to prove that the allegations against him are true. But the documentation needed to do that cannot be published without incurring penalties for "disloyalty."

Domestic and international associations of journalists have protested the measures. When Bartlett Diaz spoke to the Senate, several reporters were on hand with adhesive tape over their mouths.

The senators, who usually rubber-stamp a Mexican president's requests, have balked at the legislation and postponed a final vote.

The debate is complicated by the symbiotic relations between Mexican journalism and officialdom.

Directly or indirectly, Mexico's rulers are the patrons of much of the press. Government advertisements are the financial bedrock of many publications, particularly those of the left that are not favored with much advertising support from private business. A government corporation controls the supply of newsprint. Mexico's low-paid reporters are accustomed to receiving money--"the envelope," as they say--and a variety of favors from government officials.

Some members of the new administration suggested privately before de la Madrid took office that it would be impossible to abolish this system. Their reasoning was that if an official does not pay a reporter then one of his political enemies will.

Put in its best light, the new legislation provides a means for the administration to abolish the payoffs without having to suffer arbitrary retaliation in print. Longstanding tax breaks for the press are already being phased out.

One senior official who asked not to be cited by name insisted that "newspapers will be freer" if the government ends its support of them and a few die off.

"The idea in the past was that the more newspapers there were, the smaller the circulation would be of any single one," said the official.

At any Mexico City newsstand on a given morning at least eight general-interest dailies are available.

Without government support in advertising and the occasional "envelope" to supplement reporters' salaries, the number of publications "will be reduced and the newspapers will be stronger" the official said.

In such precarious circumstances, some writers have begun to hold their fire on the new laws, to see how they are amended in the Senate, through practice and in the courts.

Benitez, who published the "immoral" engravings, is one of those who say they will reserve jugment until the laws are a little more specific.

"But I don't believe in this disloyalty thing," he added.