Major sections of South Africa's strict regulations enforcing press censorship were declared invalid Friday by the Natal provincial Supreme Court in a further curtailment of the government's efforts to assume virtual martial-law powers.
A two-judge panel in Pietermaritzburg, the Natal provincial capital, ruled that President Pieter W. Botha had far exceeded his authority in prohibiting all news reports except those approved by the government in describing police actions undertaken to curtail continuing political violence.
The judges, in a second decision, also declared invalid other regulations prohibiting advertisements that promote, defend or simply explain the policies of the African National Congress and other outlawed political groups.
The decisions, by undercutting much of the legal basis for censorship, could effectively end government efforts to censor politically sensitive news reports. But government lawyers declared their intention to appeal the rulings amid indications that some of the regulations might be rewritten to comply with the court's criticisms.
Disagree on Region Covered
There was immediate disagreement over the geographical application of the rulings. Government attorneys said the decisions apply only in Natal and would be held in abeyance pending an appeal, but civil rights lawyers argued that courts elsewhere would have to take "cognizance" of the Pietermaritzburg rulings and that they would be observed, if not always legally enforced, pending a further decision of the Court of Appeals, the country's highest tribunal.
Editors at the country's major English-language newspapers were advised by their lawyers Friday that the rulings appear to permit publication of stories and photographs on civil unrest and the actions of South African security forces to quell it; the coverage of "restricted" political gatherings and labor union meetings; articles on consumer and school boycotts and labor disputes, as long as they do not advocate participation, and the quotation of statements that the government deems to be "subversive."
The decisions by Justices Neville Page and Brian Galgut were among the most serious legal defeats the Botha government has suffered since declaring a national state of emergency June 12, and they appear to lay the groundwork for further court challenges to the government's assumption of many martial-law powers, including key aspects of Botha's authority to rule virtually by decree.
Effect on the Media
The immediate effect of the first court ruling, which lawyers described as potentially a landmark decision if upheld on appeal, will be to allow domestic and foreign news media to resume broader, if not yet full, coverage of the country's political violence and the protest activities of the anti-apartheid movement despite repeated government efforts to curtail such reports.
The ruling also permits the government's opponents to resume many of their activities, such as the campaign for the release of political detainees, especially children, who are held here without trial or charges, by invalidating the power given the police to define anti-government activities as "subversive statements," barred by law and punishable by 10 years in prison.
Page and Galgut said in their lengthy decision that the regulations, issued Dec. 11, were too vague and poorly drafted to be legal. They took issue particularly with the authority given Gen. Johan Coetzee, the national police commissioner, to broaden the original press restrictions imposed last June and to extend them to political activities.
The government, in originally introducing the press restrictions, said its primary intention was to deny black radicals the political boost they were getting at home and abroad from coverage by the news media, particularly television, of the widespread protests against apartheid that were creating the illusion of an imminent revolution here. Anti-apartheid groups have acknowledged that they have been hurt by the diminished coverage, but not as much as the government expected.
Black Militants Helped
The second Pietermaritzburg ruling will recover the "legal space" that black militants had until January to argue the case of the African National Congress and urge its legalization.
"Large portions of the regulations are still upheld," said Azhar Cachalia, treasurer of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of 700 anti-apartheid groups with 3 million members, which challenged the regulations. "The significance of these decisions is that the body of the regulations has been smashed.
"The purpose of the regulations was to throw a cloak of silence over the country, and the effect of the judgment is that the regulations have been decidedly shaken."
Some of the regulations, quashed on technicalities, could be reintroduced, according to civil rights lawyers here, but others, such as the clauses that gave sweeping, almost unlimited powers to the police commissioner, were rejected by the court on principle and will probably bring the invalidation of many more regulations he issued based on this authority.
Media lawyers were not immediately certain of the precise implications of the rulings. One lawyer interpreted them as leaving the original censorship regulations intact, but restricting the government's authority to tighten them through new measures. Another said, however, that all the regulations are now in serious doubt and are largely unenforceable.
Suspected Guerrillas Killed
In a Durban suburb earlier Friday, police killed three suspected guerrillas belonging to the African National Congress' military wing, Spear of the Nation, in what police headquarters in Pretoria described as a fierce gun battle in Umlazi, a black township on the city's south side. Four policemen were wounded, one seriously, in the skirmish. Two women were arrested. The guerrillas were reportedly armed with AK-47 assault rifles.