JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The South African government assured newspaper editors Wednesday that it will use its new powers to censor the press against only those papers that endanger security and promote the violent overthrow of the government.
Stoffel Botha, the minister of home affairs, told a meeting of 25 editors in Cape Town that he is "a firm believer in the free flow of information." He said he will use "very carefully" his new powers, which include the authority to close newspapers and censor them before publication.
"I realize," he said, "that I have to distinguish between criticism which is fully justified against the existing government and the existing order, and which I must allow and in no way contain, and the other criticism which entails the overthrow of the existing order by way of violence. There is a fine distinction to be made between these two considerations."
But when pressed for clearer guidelines on what the government will tolerate, Botha told the editors he was unable to define precisely what constitutes the promotion of revolutionary aims. He said he would decide after studying several issues of any newspaper or magazine that is challenged.
"This is something that you cannot pinpoint by way of describing it in legislation," Botha said.
The editors argued that it will be difficult for them to obey such vague government orders, the interpretation of which rests with one person, the minister.
Botha said a new government directorate is being set up to monitor news media coverage, with the assistance of lawyers, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists and journalists.
He said that studies by social scientists have established criteria making it possible to determine whether criticism of the government is permissible or whether it is part of what he called a multifaceted plan to encourage violence and to overthrow the government.
Within 'Normal' Limits
Criticism of the government must be kept within "normal" limits, he said, and must envision change within the country's present political system.
The new regulations have been widely criticized by civil rights groups, labor unions, church leaders, liberal politicians and much--but not all--of the press. And they may be challenged shortly in court.
The immediate effect will probably be to increase the already considerable self-censorship here, as editors try to decide what might offend the government.
Issued under South Africa's 14-month-old state of emergency, the new regulations give the government even broader powers to restrict what the press reports.
Newspapers and magazines may be subjected to pre-publication censorship or banned for up to three months if the government concludes that they have repeatedly denigrated state authorities, such as the security forces or black town councils, or have stirred up racial animosity. Other offenses include enhancing the image of the outlawed African National Congress, encouraging rent strikes or school boycotts, or promoting other forms of civil disobedience.
The measures are aimed primarily at the radical press, on the left and on the extreme right, and at newsletters published by anti-apartheid groups, including churches. But they apply as well to the major newspapers, and Botha warned the editors that the government will monitor them just as carefully as other publications.
In Pretoria, meanwhile, a Catholic priest who was tortured during a year in detention said that he had been denied a passport to travel to Europe and the United States. Father Smangaliso Mkhwatsha, general secretary of the Southern Catholic Bishops' Conference, who was released in June after being held without trial for a year, called the decision more "church-bashing" by the government.
Black group seeks to censor film on Steve Biko. Story in Calendar.