What freedom of expression?

2009-12-31 00:00

IS freedom of speech in South Africa reserved only for a few individuals?

Over the past few months there has been controversy over what some prominent figures have been saying. As a result some lost their jobs, some were suspended while others were able to say what they wanted without any retribution.

Our Constitution allows us to express ourselves in any way that we like as long as we are not infringing on anyone’s rights. However, we seem to have a problem when people express themselves or their opinions with regard to certain issues.

I will mention a few incidents that have occurred over the past few months. They have much in common but the outcomes in some cases were very different.

During a time that South Africa was preparing for elections, the president of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), using a national platform, declared that he would kill for Jacob Zuma. He even went as far as calling the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) names, yet all this was ignored by certain members of our society. When others raised the matter they got the brushoff. The same thing happened when former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota and the former premier of Johannesburg Mbazima Shilowa left the ANC to form their own political party, Cope. When they were called degrading names this was overlooked.

Moving away from politics, in June South Africa hosted the Confederations Cup, which was a dress rehearsal for the 2010 Soccer World Cup that we will be hosting. One of the national broadcasting presenters, Walter Mokoena, voiced his opinion on air after South Africa lost a game against Spain, saying that he thought the then coach, Joel Natalino Santana and his captain Aaron Mokoena, should go. For uttering this statement Mokoena was suspended.

The issue dragged on and became very messy, to the point where the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration had to intervene for

Mokoena to be reinstated. Maybe my understanding of freedom of speech is not up to par but I am of the impression that I am entitled to say what I think at the time that I feel like saying it and even more so when I am in a position to do just that.

Mokoena has since returned to work but the question that I have is whether he is allowed to express his opinion or not?

Then there was the story of a girl from Limpopo, Caster Semenya. Upon doing exceptionally well in Berlin, winning the 800-metre women’s race and breaking the world record, controversy arose about her sex.

The IAAF claimed that the chairperson of Athletics South Africa Leonard Chuene knew about the sex-verification tests that were conducted on her in South Africa and in Berlin. Chuene maintained that he knew nothing about the South Africa test and he said this more than once on a national platform. The man still kept his job even after it was discovered that he lied and deceived us.

Amazingly, Chuene kept his job after such a stunt, but when a Johannesburg DJ made a comment about the Semenya incident he was suspended and subsequently fired for what were regarded as callous and irresponsible statements.

While on the subject of DJs and their right to express themselves, at a time when we were preparing for the general election another DJ on a Johannesburg-based youth radio station (YFM) was heard campaigning on air for the ruling party. Management suspended the DJ for breaking the station’s protocol, but the ANCYL then jumped in and said that he was well within his rights to voice his opinion. They spoke of how legal and democratic this was.

More recently there was controversy about what another 5FM DJ and TV personality said on the social network Twitter after receiving the news that the former Health Minister Mantobazana Tshabalala-Msimang had died. The ANCYL wants the SABC to suspend and even fire him. The question is, on what grounds?

Now the question is how fair is our society when it comes to freedom of expression in this beautiful country of ours?

• Nnusi Gazi works for Discovery Health in Johannesburg. He says: ‘I write about anything that happens around me as long as it is able to edify me.’

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