Besides strong opinions, they voiced those opinions and raised the ire of many South Africans. Bullard was labeled a “racist”, Qwelane “homophobic” and Maas “an advocator of satanism”.
align=justifyBoth Bullard and Maas were fired. The Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe ordered the Sunday Sun to publish an appropriate apology to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for Qwelane’s article “Call me names, but gay is NOT okay”. Despite the Press Ombudsman receiving nearly 1,000 complaints against the newspaper for publishing the column.
align=justifyWhenever issues like this occur, people are quick to remind us that we have “freedom of speech”. Taken in context, however, how much of what is written falls within the true spirit of freedom of speech, and how much is merely a personal prejudice, thinly disguised as “contentious journalism”?
align=justifyIf you look up “freedom of speech” on Wikipedia – a site that doesn’t claim to be the last word in objective information, but that carries solid stuff for the most part – this is what you’ll see:
align=justify“Freedom of speech is the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment. ‘Speech’ is not limited to public speaking and is generally taken to include other forms of expression. The right is preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is granted formal recognition by the laws of most nations. Nonetheless the degree to which the right is upheld in practice varies greatly from one nation to another. In many nations, particularly those with relatively authoritarian forms of government, overt government censorship is enforced.
align=justify“The majority of African constitutions provide legal protection for freedom of speech. However, these rights are exercised inconsistently in practice. South Africa is probably the most liberal in granting freedom of speech, with the exception of the advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”
align=justifyLet’s re-read that last paragraph: “…with the exception of the advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”
align=justifyNowhere in this definition does it suggest that free speech is actually the truth. In fact, freedom of speech protects the speaker’s right to be economical with the truth, should he or she wish to. Without formally stating it, South Africa asks that those of us in a position to speak and be heard do so without inciting hatred. It also assumes that readers or listeners are going to practice tolerance in their analysis of the statements made. There’s the rub.
align=justifyHow tolerant should a person of colour be when a speaker exercises his freedom to suggest they are “less than” any other group? How tolerant should homosexual people be when a writer suggests their lifestyle gives rise to practices like bestiality? Should a strongly Christian group be able to have someone fired for voicing his opinion on satanism?
align=justifyTrue freedom of speech would require that we, as readers and listeners, exercise our own powers of freedom – namely, switching the radio off or not buying a particular publication – and be done with it.
align=justifyHuman nature, though, won’t allow for tolerance of that magnitude and so the men and women who wrote the Constitution ask that we limit our freedom of speech to ensure we are not the cause of more hatred and violence.
align=justifyMaas was dealt with swiftly, losing his job after an extensive SMS “campaign” asked Rapport readers not to buy the publication, and it came under threat of possibly losing revenue. Bullard got the bullet and was made to apologise. While Qwelane has been asked to make an apology. His column was not deemed to have incited hatred or violence. Did Maas’s column incite these?
align=justifyWhy the double standards? Is homophobia any less offensive than racism or religious attack? Apparently. If we really believe in freedom of speech and justice for all, Qwelane, Maas and Bullard should be treated equally in the light of the reactions their columns produced.
align=justifyOf course, then there’s the question of how these things come to be published in the first place. Who is ultimately responsible for what goes into a publication? Many years ago a sub-editor was fired from a major newspaper for quoting a “banned person”. The person was Nelson Mandela and the quote was, apparently, “You can’t quote me, I’m a banned person.”
align=justifyIn those days, sub-editors were there to ensure stories were factual and publications couldn’t get sued for their content. Cost cutting may have put paid to the sub-editor’s position, deeming them an unnecessary expense when you have an editor. So, if the editor allows content that incites hatred, shouldn’t he or she take responsibility? What about the publishing company?
align=justifyThe buck has to stop somewhere. Either these columns must be subbed, edited or withheld when they contain blatant hate-inciting speech, or the South African public must quietly ditch their subscriptions and not rant about issues. Clearly, some writers and broadcasters are out to raise controversy without thought for the consequences.
align=justifyIt may well be time for every individual in the media to take responsibility for what is said and published. Anyone can be racist, homophobic or anti-religion in their own time, but journos using their platforms of privilege to incite hatred because of their own personal views are not doing the public – or the industry – any favours.