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Judge Bars S. African Police Bid to Ban Newspaper Ad

March 11, 1987|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The police threatened Tuesday to seize the entire press run of the Johannesburg Star, South Africa's largest daily newspaper, in order to prevent distribution of an advertisement protesting indefinite detentions without trial. But the paper obtained a court order declaring the ad legal and prohibiting the police action.

The confrontation, which had angry editors and policemen facing each other in the Star's pressroom, was one of the most serious incidents yet in connection with censorship of the news media, and the press hailed it as a significant legal victory.

"We were delighted that we were able to prove a point," Harvey Tyson, the Star's editor-in-chief, said after the court ruling, "and the point is whether we are able to debate the issue of detention without trial."

A black-bordered, front-page editorial in the Star was far more blunt.

'Right . . . Is Threatened'

"Suddenly in our country even the right to question imprisonment without trial is now threatened," it said. "How have we reached this kind of totalitarian action? It is a scandal, transcending politics, which any citizen ignores at his peril."

Warning that South Africa is in danger of becoming a police state, the Star said that recent government actions under the nine-month-old state of emergency are "leading to a situation where no one, including (parliamentary) election candidates, will be safe from the awesome powers of the security police."

The advertisement, proclaiming Thursday as "National Detainees' Day," was placed by a prominent civil rights group, the Detainees' Parents Support Committee, with the backing of 13 other anti-apartheid organizations, including the South African Council of Churches, the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the United Democratic Front.

More than 25,000 people have been detained without charge under the state of emergency declared June 12 by President Pieter W. Botha, the ad asserts, and about 10,000 of these have been children.

"We don't know the full extent of the numbers detained during the past nine months because the minister (of law and order) refuses to reveal these figures," the ad says.

"The detainees have one thing in common: They are opponents of apartheid and the Nationalist government. Most of the detainees are voteless South Africans who are operating in democratically elected bodies. They are members and leaders of civic associations, trade unions, youth, students and women's organizations. Unlike the current Nationalist government, these detainees represent the democratic will of the majority of South Africans."

The advertisement urges "people in all communities to act in solidarity with detainees" by fasting, lighting candles and attending prayer services on Thursday.

Weekend Warning

At the request of the newspaper's lawyers, the ad's sponsors had deleted an appeal for the release of political detainees in order to comply with emergency regulations that make such calls illegal. Police had warned over the weekend, after a similar advertisement was published in a black-edited newspaper, that they would seize all copies of any paper publishing the ad in the future.

On advice from their lawyers that the amended ad was legal, the Star decided to defy the police, Tyson said, and as soon as the presses began to run, the paper sought the court order prohibiting seizure of the newspapers.

"We believe our reputation is at stake," Tyson told Justice Brian O'Donovan at an emergency hearing in the provincial Supreme Court. "Not once in more than 80 years have we been stopped from reaching our readers."

The Star could have lost more than $250,000 had the issue been seized, Tyson said. The paper has a daily circulation of about 200,000.

Police headquarters in Pretoria issued a statement arguing that the security police, in attempting to prevent the ad's publication, were simply doing their duty under the state of emergency.

"Comment by the editor of the Star creates the impression that the newspaper had been delivered to the mercy of the police," the statement said. "The comment completely overlooked the fact that the police action could at any time be tested in the courts and that the police were fully responsible for any unjustified action and any damage resulting from its actions should a court decide."

2 Weeks to Appeal

The Star's victory--the police have two weeks to appeal O'Donovan's ruling--will undoubtedly lead to the ad's placement in other newspapers this week and to future ads challenging the government on other aspects of the state of emergency.

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