Max du Preez

Free speech is never absolute

2011-08-03 11:00

Max du Preez

The public discourse in South Africa is a bit like a bus without brakes: frantic and close to being out of control.

When did it become acceptable in our democracy to voice one's basest instincts from the rooftops?

What has gone wrong in our society that has led to this mushrooming of intolerance and grandstanding of public hostility, prejudice and aggression?

What has happened to our media outlets that they allow blatant racism and vicious slander to be published?

What has gone wrong in the African National Congress, once the most respected liberation movement in Africa that they condone senior leaders calling a whole population group “criminals” who should be “punished”?

Critical pillar

Free speech is a critical pillar of our democracy, but we dare not allow it to be used as a smokescreen for reckless hate mongering - that would, in the end, bring about the end of free speech.

Nobody called it free speech when the radio station and newspapers controlled by the Hutu nationalists in Rwanda called the Tutsi “cockroaches” who should be “exterminated” and that led to the death of nearly a million people in 100 days in 1994.

Free speech, for which I have been an activist all my adult life, can never be absolute.

Issues such as the protection of children, the privacy of ordinary citizens, defamation (when statements about individuals are untrue and not in the public interest), national security in times of war or severe crisis and incitement to violence limit our freedom to say just anything.

Hate speech, be that sexism, homophobia or racism, should be equally powerful inhibitors of free speech.

In favour of debate

No, this is not an argument for censorship.

Yes, I’m still in favour of robust debate - I practice it every day in all my columns and opinion pieces.

Yes, I think it is crucial to have platforms for ordinary people to voice their opinions, even if these opinions are uncomfortable and unpopular.

I know we as a society will not always agree on the dividing line between hate speech and robust debate, especially when it regards sexism, racism or homophobia.

But come on, it isn’t all that hard to figure out when someone had really stepped over the line, when an utterance is really dangerous.

Julius Malema’s statements on white South Africans and Sowetan ex-columnist Eric Myeni’s attack on City Press editor Ferial Haffejee are clear examples.

Naked racism

But while the rubbishing of white people as a group has become the flavour of the month - “It is becoming more acceptable for black South Africans to scorn and abuse whites openly as a racial group,” remarked the British news magazine The Economist recently - the more common form of public racism still come from whites, especially in comments on websites like those of newspapers and news services.

Not that there aren’t sometimes equally offensive statements by participants with names indicating they are probably black.

The naked racism so often seen in the remarks below stories and columns on News24 is legendary and has often been referred to on Twitter.

The chat rooms of Afrikaans newspapers are no better, although these are (mercifully) not as often noticed by non-Afrikaans speakers.

Some of these chat rooms have become so infected by vulgar prejudice and vile bigotry that they have lost almost all use apart from serving as a toilet into which these peddlers of hatred can vomit their filth.

I object. These media owners have handed important public spaces to elements consumed by racism and thus denied decent citizens the right to use them for civilised debate and exchange of views.

Some websites have decided to post warnings, to monitor contributions or to demand proper registration of participants.

Some of these, like politicsweb.co.za and the thedailymaverick.co.za, have become extremely valuable sites of democratic exchange of information, ideas and opinions.

I have no inside knowledge of News24.com, but considering the filth published weekly in the comments section on this site, I would find it very hard to believe there is any monitoring of entries on to the chat room.

Demand an end to hate speech

I agree with the statement appearing at the end of this column: “News24.com encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views.”

But I maintain that preconditions and proper monitoring will do a lot to force those who think they have the right to racially and otherwise insult people with inflammatory language to temper their language and be more civilised.

Decent citizens from the left to the right, white and black, should be more vocal in demanding an end to hate speech and for democratic spaces to be kept clear enough for proper debate to take place.

Media owners, managers and editors need to come to the party.

It is in their own interest, because if the abuse of free speech for hate mongering continues unabated, there won’t be any free speech left.

We will be at war.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

Send your comments to Max

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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