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Perpetrators of hate speech and hate crimes have for far too long had unrestricted media channels to spew their hatred. But should the message, even though highly offensive, be sanitised so that it does not harm, asks George Claassen.
The media are entering a crucible that is impacting on their
traditional function in free and democratic societies, one that journalists have
seldom, if ever, had to endure in the history of the profession.
The simplistic world view portrayed by Thomas Danforth in
Act III of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, "This is a sharp time, now, a precise time – we
live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and
befuddled the world", challenges journalists in this purifying process
where fake news endangers, where perpetrators, propagandists and in many
instances even politicians utilise and often manipulate the media to send a
clear message of hate and intolerance, trying to demarcate clear borders of "us"
According to the Oxford English Dictionary a
crucible is firstly a container in which metals or other substances may be
melted or subjected to very high temperatures, and, secondly, a situation in which
people or things are severely tested, often interacting to produce something
The unprecedented announcement earlier this
week by five media organisations in New Zealand about an agreement they have reached
to limit their reporting of the trial of the
Australian accused of the mosques massacre in Christchurch in an attempt
to restrict and contain the propagation of his white supremacist beliefs,
clearly shows the media recognising their entrance into this purifying vessel.
Perpetrators of intolerance,
hate speech and hate crimes have for far too long had unrestricted media channels
to spew their hatred across the global village where social media platforms
have become such powerful and immediate extensions of our senses.
In this crucible, freedom of
expression is thrown in the purifying cauldron. Often now one of the most
serious questions surfacing in public discourse is whether freedom of
expression should be limited at all. And is it absolute? The South African
Constitution says no, it is limited by any expression of propaganda
for war, incitement of imminent violence, or advocacy of hatred that is based
on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to
The most important channels
to distribute false news and hate speech, are clearly social media platforms
and they have started to act against perpetrators. Last Friday, Facebook and
Instagram evicted seven extremists from their platforms: Alex Jones, a master
conspiracy theorist and founder of Infowars, Louis Farrakhan, an openly
anti-Semitic black nationalist minister of the Nation of Islam, the former
right-wing Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer for Infowars, Paul
Joseph Watson, Paul Nehlen, an alt-right white nationalist, as well as Infowars
itself whose account was closed. Twitter has taken similar steps in the past
against some extremists.
In South Africa, the debate
about freedom of expression has become more intense over the past weeks with
the controversial decision by the Human Rights Commission that the threat by
Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, that "We
are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at
least for now", is not hate speech. Then
there are the threats to kill whites by Black
Land First president Andile Mngxitama, the action of Multichoice to ban
Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr from its platforms because of his apartheid flag
waving and numerous racist utterances like blaming blacks for apartheid, and
the efforts by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to ban that particular flag as
Learning the lessons from history
Will the New Zealand decision set an example
for the media elsewhere, also here in South Africa? How much coverage should
one give to anti-Semitic, anti-Islam or anti-Christian manifestos, while attacks
on synagogues, mosques and churches are steadily rising worldwide? One should
learn the lessons from history and can and should never forget how media can be
used to harm; the direct broadcasting on the private radio station, Radio Television Libre
des Mille Collines in Rwanda spouted hate speech towards Tutsis as
being "cockroaches" that should be killed. The broadcasters called for a "final war"
to "exterminate the cockroaches" and went further, directly playing a
role in the genocide when it broadcast the names of people who should be
killed, even instructing the killers where to find them.
Or, while white, anti-immigrant supremacists now again march
across Europe and in the US, history should remind us of the role the media
played in the Goebbels propaganda against Jews that first led to thousands of
books being burned across Germany, then Kristallnacht against Jewish businesses
and synagogues, and, finally and inevitably, the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
The challenge of this
purifying process is that ethics in journalism are becoming vital to ensure
trustworthy news dissemination. News24, Media24 and other credible print and
internet news media in South Africa subscribe to the ethical code of conduct of
the Press Council, whereas broadcast media adhere to the code of the
Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Most media codes of ethics stand on four main
pillars, forming the basis of sound ethical journalism. These pillars are to report
news, without fear or favour, as accurately, truthfully and fairly as possible,
to minimise harm, to act independently from pressure and interest groups, and
to be accountable, recognising mistakes and rectifying them.
The question of freedom of
expression in the Steve Hofmeyr Oranje Blanje Blou-flag issue, and the decision
of Multichoice to withdraw support of the Ghoema awards about an
award-nominated song in which Hofmeyr was involved, also raise concerns.
In the US, efforts to
protect the American flag after it was burnt during anti-Vietnam war
demonstrations, failed when the Supreme Court ruled by 5-4 that burning the
flag was constitutionally protected free speech. Yet the Hofmeyr flag issue is
more comparable to the Confederate flag still being flown in some of the former
rebel southern states in the US or regularly displayed by white supremacists, the
Charlottesville march in August 2017 the prime example. A flag as symbol can
alienate, can offend, but should the media protect people against being
Freedom of expression is
also at stake in the recent destruction of copies of investigative journalist
Pieter-Louis Myburgh's book, Gangster
State, and threats to burn it by ANC members supporting Ace Magashule.
Journalists more and more unpopular
The New Zealand media's
decision must also be seen in light of journalists' responsibility to minimise
harm or to foresee possible harm by not publishing or broadcasting hate speech.
The media's role in holding the powerful to account, to act on behalf of the
vulnerable and weak, has not diminished but research shows that in the eyes of
the public journalists are more and more unpopular, are castigated by
politicians in far too many countries, beginning in the White House.
This also happens in South
Africa where the EFF deputy leader, Floyd Shivambu has attacked a journalist
outside Parliament, and EFF cohorts regularly threaten other journalists. Bots
on Twitter attack Myburgh, News24's editor-in-chief, Adriaan Basson, Max du
Preez and Jacques Pauw of Vrye Weekblad, Redi Tlhabi, and any journalist who
exposes the devastating effects of state capture. And let's not forget that on
the far-right, a sustained campaign is directed at another senior editor of
News24, Pieter du Toit, and other journalists who dare to question Hofmeyr and
his supporters' flag waving and destruction of Multichoice television dishes.
OPINION: Flying the apartheid flag is not about freedom of expression
During World Press Freedom Day
earlier this week, Hannah Storm, the new CEO of The Ethical Journalism Network,
gave all journalists a timely reminder of our ethical responsibility.
"We must walk the walk
not just talk the talk. We need to hold ourselves accountable as well as those
we report on. We have a responsibility to the audiences we serve and to the
wider public to be truthful and accountable, transparent and independent, to
root our work in humanity and the basic principles of ethical journalism as we
educate ourselves and others about the role of journalists and what is at stake
when press freedom suffers."
If the media are not giving
an accurate and truthful reflection of dangerous hate speech by anyone, how
will the role of the media to be the writers of the first rough drafts of
history, in the words of Phil Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, be judged and evaluated in future? If the media
are the messengers, should the message, even though it may be highly offensive,
be sanitised and purified so that it does not harm?
I do not believe so. As
journalists we have always been regulating how much light we let through upon a
subject. You cannot look the sun directly in the eye, but you can refract it
through lenses that will protect your eyes from being harmed during an eclipse.
Call it sanitising, call it censoring if you may: It is all about how much
light we let through. We very seldom would publish profanities and racist slurs
in full, using asterisks or euphemisms not to offend.
As the media, it is our duty
to inform but we also have the responsibility to minimise harm, to soften the
blow without falling into Danforth's mode of thinking that good and evil do not
- Claassen is News24's public editor.
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