Agter elke ban: Speech freedom experts weigh in on MultiChoice and Steve Hofmeyr

2019-05-03 16:53
Steve Hofmeyr (Photo: File)

Steve Hofmeyr (Photo: File)

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Since Channel24 on Tuesday broke the news that MultiChoice's DStv service won't give the Afrikaans artist Steve Hofmeyr any public exposure through airtime, the topic has been dominating headlines.

The ban includes not giving Hofmeyr - who rose to fame in the 1980s Afrikaans TV series Agter Elke Man - any further opportunities to earn money for any of his possible future work or any past material he appears in, by no longer providing a platform for it to be broadcast. 

Earlier this month, MultiChoice instructed the 2019 kykNET Ghoema Music Awards to drop a song by Hofmeyr from its nominee list, or lose its sponsorship. 

Joe Heshu, MultiChoice's group executive for corporate affairs, in a statement said: "We are committed to the building of a non-racial society and strongly condemn any acts of discrimination".

Fans have since been calling for a boycott, while others - including Hofmeyr - have destroyed DStv decoders and satellite dishes on camera. 

Hofmeyr's supporters have widely criticised MultiChoice for infringing on the singer and self-described activist's freedom of expression. 

News24 spoke to three experts to establish whether MultiChoice's ban of Hofmeyr is constitutional, fair and ethical. 

'Good for them!'

Caxton professor of journalism, author and media expert Anton Harber has applauded the ban. 

"I say good for them! I think the best way to deal with racism is [by] social exclusion. For us as individuals and organisations and companies to say we will have nothing to do with views that are bigoted.

"People who want to hear [Hofmeyr's] views or go to his concerts still have that freedom. But, as sponsors or backers or platforms, we are also entitled to say we want nothing to do with it.

Harber says exclusion is much more effective than any other form of action when it comes to "unacceptable" behaviour. "I think [Multichoice] is entitled to do it."

Media organisations make these types of decisions all the time, Harber says.

"We as news people tell other people what views and opinions we think are important and valuable and we reject those we think are not worthy of consideration.

"Presumably there are companies that might feel differently and want to back Hofmeyr and make money from him, and then the public can choose whether or not they want to listen to him."

There is a complication, though, Harber says. "MultiChoice has an unfair monopoly in this country. My only caution is the fact that MultiChoice is more powerful than any media company should be. So, it makes me worry that they can exercise such power, but I think the problem there is rather having a more competitive market and I guess Netflix is starting to change that.

"I absolutely encourage individual organisations and companies to say, we'll have nothing to do with anything we consider bigoted.

'Nobody is obligated to provide Hofmeyr a platform'

"I say this very strongly as someone who has spent many years as a freedom of speech campaigner. I would absolutely defend Hofmeyr's freedom of speech, but I don't think that obligates anyone to give him a platform," Harber says.

Samkelo Mokhine, executive director at the Freedom of Expression Institute, says that MultiChoice is completely within its rights, as a privately-owned broadcaster, to choose what it wishes to broadcast, but warns that he is concerned that it could amount to censorship.

READ: Why Steve Hofmeyr is increasingly being isolated

"There is no shortage of criticism of the statements Hofmeyr makes, but what MultiChoice has done is essentially censorship. What is concerning about this is that MultiChoice is not a small company that is just represented in South Africa. So by banning him from its platforms, the effect of this censorship is much wider that just in South Africa," Mohkine says.

What makes it more complicated, says Mokhine, is that Hofmeyr's entire body of work – past and present – will be banned. "It's almost a total wipeout of Steve Hofmeyr."

Censorship is concerning

The tricky thing is that MultiChoice has not, however, broken any rule per se, Mokhine says.

"But for a private enterprise to do this is concerning. It also affects people who associate with Hofmeyr. That could put you at odds with MultiChoice and increases the range of the censorship."

While Mokhine acknowledges that there are still many other platforms where Hofmeyr's work can be accessed, one has to consider whether those channels are as wide-reaching as MultiChoice's, he says. It also impacts on Hofmeyr's ability to generate an income.

"So, you have to consider the scale of the platform. How many homes does MultiChoice broadcast to in South Africa alone?  So the one [platform] can't really replace the other."

Mokhine says if people are annoyed by Hofmeyr or do not like his music, they have a choice whether they want to listen to him or his views. "You have the choice to switch it off. But for everybody else, that choice has been taken away from them. They can no longer exercise that choice because it has now been made for them."

Referring to the forced withdrawal of a Ghoema Music Awards nomination of a music video in which Hofmeyr appears with other artists, Mokhine also says those artists are also being censored because of their association with Hofmeyr.

Other ways to deal with hate speech

Mokhine says if Hofmeyr's utterances constitute hate speech, there are legislative channels that should deal with it.

"The problem comes when you feel you exercise ‘social responsibility' through censorship when [Hofmeyr's statements] annoy you or you dislike it or it doesn't sit well with you. We disagree with that. If there is hate speech, then tackle it as such through legislative means.

"But we can't rob a person of their rights and freedoms given to them under the constitution because we find what they say unpalatable or we don't like the people they associate with. This is a slippery slope. If it's Steve Hofmeyr today, who is it tomorrow?" Mokhine says.

"If there is hate speech, let's deal with it in accordance with the law, and then it can be banned.

READ: Angry Steve Hofmeyr plans 'special funeral' for his DStv dish

"But if it just annoys certain people, you have to consider the bigger freedom people have. This is where we were under apartheid where people were banned, publications were banned, and it just adds up because certain people dislike it. If [Hofmeyr's utterances] are hate speech, then by all means, use the right channels and make him suffer the consequences," Mokhine says.

Value vs harm

Constitutional law expert Professor Pierre de Vos says no artist has the right to be granted a platform by a private company.

"For example, if I write an article, it is not my right that they publish it.

"It could be different with the SABC, which is a public broadcaster [controlled by government], where a variety of voices should be heard. It works differently with private companies.

"The right to freedom of speech is clear: no one can stop you from making a record or to say what you want, as long as it's within the law.

"But people think when you choose not to allow a person to say something on your platform it's censorship – but that is a very broad definition of freedom of speech."

De Vos says another problem with freedom of speech is that people don't consider whether what is being said has any value, or whether it may be harmful.

"Some people can't be given a platform because the nature of what they're saying is harmful or adds no value.

"For example, if I am a campaigner for the rights of paedophiles, MultiChoice would in all probability also refuse to give me a platform because my message is obviously harmful to individuals and to democracy.

Not unethical

"If you therefore believe Hofmeyr's utterances are racist – as I do – and his opinions are rooted in racism, then not giving him a platform is not an ethical problem.

"If you, however, believe he is controversial but not harmful, then you are welcome to do the opposite."

De Vos says whether MultiChoice's decision to disassociate with Hofmeyr was wise or not "depends on your politics".

"If you believe Hofmeyr's statements are not harmful, then you may think MultiChoice made the wrong decision, ethically. But if you believe them to be wrong, harmful and of little value, then you will obviously disagree. Either way, it doesn't have a real impact on freedom of expression."

De Vos emphasises that the impact of the MultiChoice ban is "not that dramatic" on Hofmeyr.

"He can still perform in public, his music can still be aired on other platforms, on radio stations, he can use the internet to distribute his work… There are many other platforms where he can work.

"This is simply a case of one company saying, we are not giving him a voice. Others can still opt to do so if they wish."

On Thursday, Hofmeyr publicly cancelled his DStv account, drove over his decoder, and threw his satellite dish off the roof of his house.

He then offered a R10 000 reward to "one lucky winner" who did the same and posted a video on Facebook before 1 June 2019.

"Yes, you can't boycott everything and everyone, but I'm going to try. I'm done with MultiChoice, all their channels, including kykNET and Showmax, as well as Media24 (stop trying to phone me) and a few others that I will name later," read part of Hofmeyr's online rant.

MultiChoice earlier on Thursday declined to add anything to their previous statement on the matter. Naspers, of which Media24 is a subsidiary, earlier this year completed the unbundling of its shares in MultiChoice Group (MCG).

Read more on:    dstv  |  multichoice  |  anton harber  |  steve hofmeyr  |  pierre de vos

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