Internet bigots and loonies also have rights

2009-11-21 00:00

NEWSPAPERS, at present much derided and bleeding red ink, have at least one useful social function. They confine the nutters, rumour mongers, conspiracy theorists and bigots to their dank little holes by largely starving them of publicity. Those who warn of an international Jewish conspiracy or imminent Armageddon if women don’t dress modestly, struggle to get published in credible newspapers.

Competition for space is fierce and the local loony claiming abduction and impregnation by randy extra-terrestrials is only rarely indulged.

The Internet is different. Anyone can assert expertise and, at negligible cost, peddle their pet peeves. It provides true freedom of speech to those who struggled previously to get their views aired.

But fear, marginalisation and rapid social change make for a dangerous combination. The Internet also allows all kinds of vile creatures to slither into one’s e-mail inbox.

The most recent one was a collection of farm-murder photographs circulated by an educated man, a dentist, who presumably believes he is performing a useful social function. If the intention was to evoke fear and anger, in that he succeeded.

These are scenes of almost unbelievable violence. A sharpened broomstick is stuck up a vagina; a child is bludgeoned to death; and a young woman is disembowelled and hung by her heels from a meat hook.

The text fulminates against a media and government that deny the truth about crime. It talks of Afrikaner genocide, a political war to drive white farmers from the land, and it links to websites that are virulently anti-ANC, registered to the tiny island of Nauru in order to hide the identities of their operators.

The websites, including one lobbying against the Soccer World Cup in South Africa next year, have been repeatedly targeted by hackers.

The assumption of many is that such cyber attacks are the work of South African government agents.

A week ago, the identity of the owner of ZAZASucks.com was revealed for the first time when police arrested him in a dawn raid. Albert Oosthuizen’s site claims as its mission “to bring news to the outside world of the crap that has become of South Africa”.

Oosthuizen was held overnight and released without charge after the prosecutor reportedly refused to pursue a 1993 fraud charge against him.

ZASucks is now offline, Oosthuizen appears to have disappeared, and the local media are curiously uninterested in a contretemps that goes to the very heart of freedom of expression.

At issue is what tolerance should be accorded to those who patently distort statistics and events to stir up emotions and to serve a political agenda most people find reprehensible. The answer is actually easy: every bit we can muster.

As ANC Youth Leaguer Julius Malema demonstrates, hate speech and venom are not the preserve of the right. In any case, bigotry is best fought not by suppression but with reason.

Sure, whites are cruelly murdered by psychologically sick people and in some cases this is fuelled by racial hatred and the desire to drive whites off the land.

There must be many more pictures of black people similarly tortured and cruelly murdered, and their suffering changes the story somewhat.

The other side of the story tells of tens of millions of people who don’t behave this way, despite grinding poverty and harsh conditions. That side of the story argues that the best hope for a traumatised South Africa lies in development that delivers better lives and the gradual normalisation of a violence-plagued society.

The Soccer World Cup will help in a small way.

So, too, would clarity on the strange events surrounding Oosthuizen and his activities.

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