George Claassen

On Steve, Julius and the Christchurch murders: Why we need to talk about hate speech

2019-05-06 08:31
Steve Hofmeyr Foto: Felix Dlangamandla

Steve Hofmeyr Foto: Felix Dlangamandla

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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" and "them".

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 new.

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 cause harm.

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 hate speech.

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 offended?

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 mix.

- Claassen is News24's public editor.

Read more on:    steve hofmeyr  |  julius malema  |  journalism  |  hate speech  |  media freedom
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