Not in my paper

2010-05-27 00:00

IT was an inevitable question editors­ have had to answer since last Friday: “So would you have published Zapiro’s cartoon?”

While my response has been long and nuanced, it boils down to me saying that I would not have published the offending cartoon. The consequence of this response is that my commitment to freedom of expression comes into question: can society trust a media practitioner, let alone an editor, who does not believe in the unfettered nature of freedom of expression?

The answer lies with the consumers of the media. Society has rights too. The South African struggle was against the belief by the powerful that they could impose themselves and their views on the weak.

This means that the views of those who have access to media should not unfairly trample on those of the members of society who do not have the same privilege. A balance has to be found between the values of that society and the need of its artists to express themselves as they wish.

I hold no sympathy for the libertarian view that one is allowed to knowingly offend as an end in itself­.

Lest we forget, Zapiro’s contentious cartoon was reacting to an online competition to draw the Prophet Mohammed, which had no other intention than to get people to draw the prophet. The sponsors of that competition knew they were being offensive but went ahead because they had a constitutional right to do so.

Values and norms are not always written. For example, while it is the right of any adult to have sexual relations with any person they choose (provided that person is old enough), South Africans of all stripes were offended to learn that president Jacob Zuma had fathered a child outside marriage.

Legally and constitutionally Zuma­ committed no crime. A constitutionally consistent argument would have said that our president is entitled to sleep with whomever he wishes. Happily, society­ is not only governed by legalistic concepts, hence its reaction to the presidential love child.

While there are times when the concept of wrong and right varies from society to society or from one generation to the next, most honest people would admit that they have a fair idea of what is permissible and what is not.

If freedom of expression was as elastic as some make it out to be, what would stop photographers, for example, from taking pictures of individuals having sex and demanding that they be published in the name of free speech.

Tastefulness, context and necessity — not libertarian slogans — must count for something when decisions which we know will offend a significant number of those who consume our media have to be made.

It may, for example, be offensive to Catholic readers to have a cartoon of a priest in an indecent act with a child. But those honest among the faithful would know that even if they wish such a cartoon were not published, it is fair comment given the scandal that envelopes the world’s biggest Christian congregation.

Ironically, it was atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell who warned that one could tell a fool by the hastiness and the absoluteness of their conclusions. Here we are as newsroom managers asked to make an absolute undertaking that freedom of speech will trump at all times.

I am just not available for that kind of group-think.

To say that freedom of expression should prevail at every encounter­ is to demand absolute rights for it which no other freedom enjoys. It is to create a hierarchy­ of rights and place your preferred one at the apex.

It is as arbitrary as deciding that freedom of religion itself is a worthier­ right to defend than any other.

Those demanding that because I am a media practitioner I must follow the dictate that freedom of expression is king (or queen), strip me of my agency. They make a robot­ of me and thus deny me the right to hold my own thoughts and to express them. They deny me the very freedom they claim to defend­.

Expecting journalists as a group to think certain thoughts because they are journalists is no different to expecting me to enjoy maskandi and not heavy metal because­ I am black.

The Press Code says that “reports, photographs or sketches relative to matters involving indecency­ or obscenity shall be presented with due sensitivity towards the prevailing moral climate”. Since it does not spell out what it means by “indecency” or “moral climate”, it must be taken that editors shall look into the relationships they have with their readers when making decisions on what to publish.

In other words, the decision as to what is decent or moral cannot be centrally determined and it is fluid.

It remains the media’s duty to minimise harm. It is inevitable that in the course of journalism, someone or their reputation will be harmed. It is our responsibility to show that this is never gratuitou­s.

This debate is not, as some have sought to portray it, about whether Muslims should be treated with kid gloves. It is about the fact that even in these days of deep-seated cynicism, there are still those who recognise the difference or distance between the sacred and the profane.

Zapiro cannot claim not to have anticipated the response to his cartoon. He picked a battle that could only go one way, and did. The nice thing about it was that he was entitled to. Society is equally entitled to be outraged and editors have a right to say: “Not in my paper”.

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