align=leftFor those who observed that sms that made several Mexican waves across South Africa, it could have been funny, had it not such tragic consequences.
align=leftOn the one hand we saw old-fashioned Afrikaner bullying tactics, albeit anonymous, in terms of the mass action mobilisation via cellphones to boycott Rapport, the second-biggest Sunday newspaper in the country. On the other, we saw an editor known for his bravery under huge pressures (on a moral level, think Truth and Reconciliation Commission; on a commercial one, think his stand against a motorcar manufacturer and the potential loss of millions of rands), who capitulated under pressure from faceless threats.
align=leftThe sms under discussion is the one that read: “Boikot rapport [sic] volgende Sondag oor Deon Maas se artikel dat Satanisme erken moet word as Godsdiens. Stuur vir tien persone.” (Boycott rapport [sic] next Sunday because of Deon Maas’ article that Satanism should be recognised as Religion. Forward to ten people.)
align=leftFor those of you who live in a parallel universe where this event has passed you by: it was all about a column in the Sunday newspaper Rapport, the very first nogal, by controversial columnist and enfant terrible of Afrikanerdom, Deon Maas, in which he said Ã¢Â€Â“ in the name of tolerance (nogal again) Ã¢Â€Â“ that Satanism should also be recognised as a religion.
align=leftAnd then the indignant and self-righteous sms’s started to fly. The tragic end to this is that the editor, Tim du Plessis, succumbed to “commercial pressures” because of severe threats, from trucks that would be burnt to cafÃƒÂ© owners threatening not to sell Rapport (total circulation: 301,692, July Ã¢Â€Â“ Sept 2007) the next Sunday. Du Plessis fired Maas Ã¢Â€Â“ although Maas did nothing wrong under the
align=leftConstitution’s free speech article in our Bill of Rights, as he did not transgress any of the provisos. The events leading up to the sms wave that became a tsunami, and those after the storm, will hopefully be the subject of a number of socio-scientific research projects from within various disciplines in the wide field of the humanities and social sciences Ã¢Â€Â“ from the media to theology to political science, as it needs to be unpacked on several levels.
align=leftBut just as an initial reading into what the significance is of this event, here are a couple of thoughts: The mass action, or Maas action if you wish (or mass hysteria?), playing itself out thanks to modern technology is a study in itself. Such a mobilisation via cellular telephony has never been experienced in South Africa. It would make fascinating reading if data could be gathered to verify exactly what the extent of the text messaging was. Or whether it was a mere storm in a tea cup with “forward to ten others” meaning hundreds (thousands?) of receivers got the message over and over again. But the fact remains: thanks to our information society, built on the highway of communication technology, a mass mobilisation could be called upon.
align=leftWhich brings one to the subject of those who were mobilised. Yes, Rapport’s psychographics will show some of the most conservative consumers of any newspaper in South Africa, even though this conservatism might not correlate with the fact that Rapport has the typical Sunday newspaper fare of tits and other tasty titbits. Nevertheless, the conservative religious right has demonstrated how they could muster support following the mere mention of the word “Satanism”. With the result that that other -ism, capitalism, eventually was blamed for the editor’s decision to get rid of the source of the offence: fire the columnist.
align=leftThe reason given for this was “commercial”, the editor said in a media release, as “cafÃƒÂ© owners” (we don’t know how many) refused to sell the newspaper. Should it not have been their loss instead of that of media freedom? (And will said cafÃƒÂ© owners take a stand, e.g., against tabloids in the 16 Days campaign and refuse to sell them, as therevis a correlation between the objectification of women and violence against women? Or is the -ism of sexism acceptable in their books?)
align=leftAnother issue: if a publication decided to publish the work of a contributor, should it then not, if it was deemed good enough to publish, stand by the contents? In this case, Maas was hired to “stir”. He was wheedled away from Media24’s popular Saturday supplement BY, only to be fired after his second column. Maas stayed true to reputation: he stirred. As a matter of fact, he caused a tsunami. And then he had to be seen to be punished for his “sins” Ã¢Â€Â“ get the chop, in a literal way.
align=leftThe editor, one can accept, was caught between the devil and… ok, Satan. That brave editor would not have made the decision had he another option. Of course we all live in the real world: Circulation is on the daily agenda in every newsroom in the country. The decision to fire the offensive columnist, who ironically just did what he was paid to do Ã¢Â€Â“ to stir !_LT_EMin the name of circulation !_LT_/EM!_LT_EMÃ¢Â€Â“ !_LT_/EMmust have been the most difficult in his professional career. Fact remains, as the custodian of his brand, the editor had to make a pragmatic decision.
align=leftBut back to the Rapport readers. What does it say about this specific layer in our society who resorted to this kind of anonymous blackmail? It can be said that they did exactly what was done two thousand years ago to the man whom their religion was named after: they accused someone, found him guilty, condemned him and crucified him Ã¢Â€Â“ without any evidence. Weren’t they supposed to live and behave according to the Christian value of tolerance?
align=leftAre they so unsure of their own belief system that they feel threatened by a mere provocative statement? Also, what does it say about the state of analytical and critical introspection within the Afrikaans religious community? The three “susterkerke” (sister churches, the three main Afrikaans reformed denominations, namely the Nederduits-Gereformeerde Kerk [NG, Dutch Reformed], the Hervormde Kerk [Reformed] and the Gereformeerde Kerk [another Reformed]) are still struggling to fit into a new South Africa. Visit a Sunday service, and it is lilywhite; some still do not even allow women as dominees and the “Gay Debate” is enough to make some hyperventilate. The religious aspects of the Ma(a)ss Hysteria has to be researched, but certainly also the socio-political aspects. What happened on the electronic highway was an indication that old-fashioned Afrikaner kragdadigheid, as was demonstrated especially during the PW-Groot Krokodil-era, is still very much a reality.
align=leftAn intriguing question: Is/was this a manifestation of an almost genetically programmed Fascism that still lingers among certain Afrikaners? Almost a case of if it threatens your existence, exterminate, stamp out, be sure to remove the object from the face of the earth? Is it a manifestation of how immature certain people still are within our democracy? One can say they have necklaced Maas electronically. But what does it say of our society if this kind of intolerance still exists where certain elements threaten to burn trucks distributing a newspaper? It might sound far-fetched, but when people are not free to think, fascism follows naturally. We have enough examples from history Ã¢Â€Â“ also our own.
align=leftHow rational was the behaviour of the sms-senders? Why did they not use existing complaints procedures if they felt they were offended? What triggered their reaction? Was it a matter of certain Afrikaners, having lost all previous powers, trying to convince themselves that they still had it in them to exert their power over others?
align=leftAnother issue that needs to be researched is the column itself. Will a content analysis identify what could offset such a reaction? Did the subtext of the column threaten certain readers? A thorough content analysis, plus focus group information, will probably provide fascinating insight into what the triggers for the mass action were.
align=leftAnd then, lastly, the matter of media freedom which was given another severe blow in a time where media freedom is already besieged on so many fronts. As if it is not enough that the government is picking on the media on every possible occasion, this event affirmed that media freedom is under threat from a media-illiterate society and from the media themselves.
align=leftWarnings that the commercial imperative is as big a threat to media freedom as government interference have been heard on many occasions. The recent events around Rapport and Maas have reformulated these uncomfortable questions: How strong are the two opposing forces of editorial independence and commercial dependence in our news rooms? How free are we from the commercial imperative in making editorial decisions?
align=leftWhat remains in the aftermath of this media tsunami? Where do we start to build again after everyone has recovered from the shock of such an anonymous, irrational attack on a newspaper, a columnist, an editor and media freedom?
align=leftOne answer would be that if our young nation, including the white tribe of Africa, was more media literate, they would understand the media better, and not see a threat in a mere provocative statement. And they might use the media in a more constructive way. Silencing voices is not the answer. Allowing more voices to be heard, is. Without media freedom no individual freedoms can exist, as media freedom is the only guarantee for all freedoms, including that of freedom of religion. And that is one message those sms-senders should receive. And forward to ten more.
align=left mce_keep=”true”Ã¢Â–Â This opinion piece first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine.