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Sipho Hlongwane
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SABC 'did not censor Cliff'

21 December 2009, 07:00  - Sipho Hlongwane
Someone shoot me now. That quarrelsome attention-seeker Gareth Cliff is told where to get off by the SABC, and suddenly we're living in Soviet Russia?

As you most probably know, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, our much execrated former Health Minister passed away last Wednesday, unleashing a wave of joyful celebration from some of her critics, chief amongst these being Gareth Cliff. Apparently they just couldn't resist the opportunity to gleefully dance on the grave of a controversial public figure. As the public rose against Gareth Cliff in fury, he refused to back down (and why would he? The attention was putting squarely in the limelight, no?)

The SABC then took the laudable step of ensuring that Mr Cliff didn't use his platform to spread his rancid views  by issuing him with a stern warning not to say anything about Dr Tshabala-Msimang's death on air. To his credit, Mr Cliff assured the SABC that he had had no such intentions. That should have been that.

Some people however, are now claiming that this shows that the SABC is not a public broadcaster, but a state broadcaster and that freedom of expression has been crushed, blah-blah-blah. Er yes, freedom of expression has been limited. That's the point, isn't it? Gareth Cliff's views on the death of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang are insensitive and border on the immoral. It is simply grotesque to take delight over someone's death, no matter how much we disagreed with that person.

And no, this isn't about defending Dr Tshabalala-Msimang's legacy, or being suddenly hypocritical upon her death. No one denies that because of her robust support for the Mbeki Administration's stance on HIV/Aids, hundreds of thousands of people died unnecessarily. That is not the issue at all. Her death leaves behind many grieving relatives and friends, and to openly and boorishly exalt over her death shows deep disrespect to these people.

Even Zackie Achmat and the Treatment Action Campaign, arguably the people with the most reasons to be gleeful over Tshabalala-Msimang's death, offered condolences to the bereaved family. Many critics, out of respect, muted their criticism of Dr Tshabalala-Msimang's policies when the news of her death first surfaced.

Is Gareth Cliff too much of a lout to do the same? Apparently, yes.

The argument that emotions should never replace truth, no matter how difficult it is, doesn't fly. It is possible to speak the truth without being castigating.

Understandably then, the SABC has told Gareth Cliff where to get off. People are confusing this with wrongful censoring. The SABC, as a public broadcaster, have a duty towards their listeners to ensure that all their broadcasts are in the public good, are not unnecessarily offensive or immoral.

The Constitution also provides that freedom of expression may be limited if that freedom infringes on the rights of others. Freedom of expression isn't as sacred as some might think (Why is it not allowed to call a black person a kaffir on air? Think about it). You can't just say what you like. This isn't the Yukon in 1896 after all. Besides, Mr. Cliff is free to be as obnoxious as he likes elsewhere, isn't he? The SABC simply said, “Not here, buddy.”

May this be the last word in what is becoming an increasingly tiresome 'debate'.

Follow Sipho Hlongwane on Twitter.


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