South African newspaper editors have been living more dangerously than usual in recent few weeks. They have been trying to keep the public informed about a fast-breaking scandal involving the country's supersecret security organization. But if they published the wrong things, or perhaps just a bit too much, there seemed a danger they could end up in jail.
The reason is that a whole string of allegations was made public (from the safety of London) by a defector from BOSS, the South African Bureau for State Security. (Boss now is defunct, having been replaced by the Department of National Security.) The defector's allegations appeared to come perilously close to breaking provisions of the ominously sweeping South African Official Secrets Act.
Penalties under this act start at a modest $120 (or jail for six months, or both) quickly rise to $1,200 (or jail for five years, or both), to the chilling prospect of jail for 15 years without the option of a fine.
TO make matters worse, the provisions of the Official Secrets Act that seemed most likely to apply to disclosures by the former BOSS spy, Arthur McGiven, were those specifically listed under the most stringent penalties.
Among other things, the Official Secrets Act makes it an offense to "obtain, collect, record, publish, or communicate to any person any secret official code or password or any article or note which is likely to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy," or to "publish or communicate, directly or indirectly, any note, document, or information relating to any police or security matter to any person or for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the Republic."
On the face of it, this excluded just about every word that former spy McGiven had to say, because he was talking about what he said happened inside the most secret branch of South Africa's secret security police.
And, indeed, after consulting its lawyers, one big newspaper cut the McGiven copy it received to the broadest generalities, explaining that it was obliged to do this for "legal reasons."
But most of the major newspapers ran the material with only minor cuts.
The main reason for this was that the editors believed that although the disclosures might be a damning indictment of the way the National Party government under former Prime Minister John Vorster abused its powers, and consequently a danger to the "safety" of that party, they were no threat to South Africa itself.
Not only newspapers opposed to the present government went along with this. Newspapers supporting the ruling National Party Afrikaner government, especially the Afrikaans-language newspaper with the biggest circulation of the lot, the Sunday Rapport, displayed the reports with vim and vigor.
Some portions of the Official Secret Act, which were published by newspapers with access to the McGiven material, seen rather amusing. For example, the interception of letters by the security police went by the almost unpronounceable Afrikaans name of "Knoopsgat" (Buttonhole), according to Mr. McGiven.
And he said Operation "Hanslam" (pet lamb) dealt with tapping telephones and telex lines. Operation "Rystoel" (wheelchair) dealt with installing electronic bugging devices, while Operation "Ompik" (literally "pick over") dealt with rougher ways of obtaining information, such as breaking into properties or faking muggings to enable agents to search a suspect.
A distinguished South African newspaper editor named Horace Flather, now retired, once described editing a newspaper in this country as being like "walking through a minefield blindfold."
The problems the editors faced over the McGiven affair the past few weeks have confirmed that it is a very dangerous occupation, with considerable penalties if you go wrong.