Erosion of freedom of speech

There is a war being fought in this country. Our right to
freely exchange ideas, to speak our minds, to hold unpopular
opinions, is being eroded by small increments in tiny battles.
It is happening because of a government that will not release
the facts required for people to make informed decisions, be
it the details of a nuclear agreement with Russia or the
contents of the Khampepe Report on the 2002 elections in
It is happening because of a ruling party that rallies crowds
in the streets when it does not like the sexual nature of an
artwork depicting its leader, and labels its critics as "counter-
It is happening in communities where protest is met by force
and repression because of the misuse of the criminal justice
system, and in a Parliament to which police are summoned to
handle the unruly.
And this past week it happened because of a narrow-minded
and plainly wrong Broadcasting Complaints Commission of
South Africa ruling that serves to chill freedom of expression
in one the most important mediums available to the
otherwise voiceless.
The commission was established "in order to promote
freedom of speech, the free flow of information and the
maintenance of high standards of broadcasting in South
This week, however, it became the defender of the apparently
hapless Cabinet against the fearsome might of a man armed
with only a telephone and an opinion.
The complainant was one Blade Nzimande, a man who
sometimes seems to manage his higher education portfolio as
a hobby while his real job seems to consist of calling for
insult laws to protect the president. Nzimande is big on
respect, except when it comes to respecting what other
people think and say.
He took umbrage at a caller who phoned in to an SAfm
discussion and proclaimed this country to have an "entirely
corrupt Cabinet".
That is simply a bridge too far, the minister said. That
Nzimande genuinely believes such an opinion should be
banned is no surprise. That the commission agreed is an
The statement, the commission held in its ruling on Monday,
was "so clearly defamatory" that the show presenter was
obliged to qualify and counter the statement. It stopped short
of imposing any sanction on the SABC, but in effect laid down
a new law for every major broadcaster in South Africa: thou
shalt not let a hyperbolic insult go unchallenged.
At no point did the panel that evaluated the complaint
consider the enormous imbalance of power between an
unidentified caller and those who run the country.
They did not ask Nzimande why he did not demand the right
to reply on air, or why he had not issued a statement coming
to the defence of Cabinet, a statement that would have had a
reach orders of magnitude greater than that of a mere
moment on the radio.
They did not consider that talk-back radio is one of the
precious few mediums by which ordinary people can have
their views heard by many of their fellows, or that the
precedent its ruling sets will make it cumbersome to debate
politics, religion, sport, or anything else on which many
people hold strong opinions that are, as often as not, hardly
supported by the facts.
Instead the commission took a narrow, legalistic approach,
saying of those three words – an "entirely corrupt Cabinet" –
that "no interpretation can be attached to them other than
that each member of the Cabinet is corrupt in the sense of at
least being susceptible to bribery or as having been bribed or
in the sense of being dishonest in some way". Because that
was an accusation against each individual, the defamation
could not be allowed to stand unchallenged.
We can suggest at least one other interpretation: that
Cabinet, as an institution, is corrupt. That a body that acts
and speaks as a collective has lost its way, been debased and
made unreliable. That a body that, for instance, acts to
protect its leader when he stands accused of nest-feathering
is not in good health.
Is that an entirely fair opinion? Perhaps not. But it is one
held by a fairly large number of people, and they should be
allowed to share it without fear that a radio presenter, or a
Cabinet minister, will intervene with a heavy hand.
In making this terrible error of interpretation, the
commission has undermined its own primary responsibility
and played right into the hands of Nzimande and his lese-
majesty fantasies.
As of this week the bar for criticism in the electronic media
is set higher than it was before. And so the war is lost, one
tiny increment at a time.
We hope that this is a ruling our colleagues in broadcasting
will not allow to go unchallenged, but sadly we do not have
faith that the SABC will put up the robust offensive required.
So, we’ll state our case: Minister Nzimande, we are of the
opinion that South Africa is served by an entirely corrupt
We look forward to hearing from you.


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