On Freedom Day, it is worth remembering that our freedom of expression is both valuable and vulnerable. We cannot take it for granted, argues Anton Harber.
We live in a vuvuzela country, right? We make a lot of noise, and make sure everyone knows what we think. We debate, argue and contest everything loudly. We are not shy to tell Ministers they are lying or stealing, and can even be quite rude to them.
Some would say our political discourse gets quite raw, with name-calling and finger-pointing. But no-one is in danger of being arrested for what they say except those who stray into naked racism and hate speech. That’s where we draw the line.
In short, we have a great deal of freedom of speech and we make full use of it. So why should we be concerned about this freedom?
A recent submission to a United Nation’s review of human rights in the last five years highlighted a series of threats to free expression in this country. Some of these are immediate and physical, while others relate to a shift in the political climate that raises warning flags for critical and independent voices.
The report was submitted by five human rights organisations: my own Campaign for Free Expression, Media Monitoring Africa, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Amnesty International South Africa and the SA National Editors’ Forum.
This group listed a startling 59 incidents in recent years when journalists have been assaulted or harassed, preventing them from doing their work. Almost half of these incidents were carried out by police, but other culprits were political parties or their supporters, communities where reporters were working and criminals.
These attacks ‘speak to an underlying lack of understanding and acceptance of the importance of a free media” and reflect “a deliberate attempt by politicians, including cabinet ministers, to undermine the media”, the report said.
Police, it was argued, “showed scant regard for media freedoms and rights, and act in contravention of their own Standing Orders … In the worst cases, [police] committed criminal acts by intimidating and assaulting journalists. Attacks have included severe beating up of journalists, manhandling both male and female journalists, and firing at them with rubber bullets.”
There is also concern about the “ongoing and serious online intimidation and harassment of journalists”. This includes trolling, baiting, doxing and automated Twitterbot attacks and has involved hate speech and threats of physical attack and death.
Threats against female journalists were “frequently gendered and include misogynistic
attacks, death threats and threats of rape”. Most of these go unreported and are considered “part of the job”. Yet, they have a chilling effect and sometimes lead to self-censorship, the five organisations argued.
It is likely that the number of incidents is higher, and many go unreported. And this list only relates to journalists, a relatively protected group: add on top of it protestors who are roughly treated, or ordinary citizens who get a harsh response when they express their views and who have much less protection.
Perhaps the most shocking illustration of the extra-legal silencing of individuals – and one that does not get enough attention – is the fact that there have been more than 500 political assassinations in this country since 1994. Researcher David Bruce in 2013 listed around 400, and the New York Times reported last year that there had been 90 politicians killed since 2016. These have led to only a handful of convictions.
Consider Ayanda Ngila. A community leader in the KZN area of eKhenana, he was working on the irrigation system in a communal garden on the afternoon of Tuesday March 8 this year, when four armed men arrived and shot him. The community organization Abahlali baseMjondolo blamed ANC members for it.
Other recent killings, such as those of ANC Umvoti councillor Thembinkosi Lombi and ANCYL eThekwini member Mfundo Mokoena signal an uptick in such acts, increasingly tied to ANC infighting.
To paraphrase a Carlos Amato cartoon, we seem to have replaced freedom of speech with freedom of assassination – the ultimate form of censorship.
The Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime (GITOC) monitors such killings. They cited seven incidents taking 10 lives just in the month of September 2021 as evidence of this uptick in violent censorship. These included the murder of whistleblower Babita Deokaran, signaling an attempt to stop those who speak out about crime and corruption.
There are also legal threats. The Cybercrimes Act of 2020 was cited as “a problematic and potentially malicious piece of legislation” because of its lack of a public interest override in the disclosure of data messages. It is one of several acts that hang over freedom of expression in one form or another: the Protection of State Information Bill, the Hate Speech Bill and the Film and Publications Act among them.
These legislative restrictions on free speech do not come from out of the blue. They reflect a growing dislike of the media by political and other leadership.
We have had two senior ANC people in recent weeks – Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Premier Sihle Zikalala – pointing to the constitution as an impediment to transformation, signaling a growing desire to find ways to deflect from the government’s performance in power and an impatience with the way the constitution limits government powers and protects citizens. Under such conditions, freedom of speech is often the first target, as it is a freedom that is essential to the protection of other freedoms.
As we approach the 2024 elections, and the governing party faces the possibility of defeat, we can expect – if global and historical precedent is anything to go by, particularly in countries three decades after liberation – increasing attacks on critical and independent voices.
We have long learnt that we have to fight to keep the space open for free speech, especially in times of political pressure and turmoil. There are plenty of red flags in the air, warning us that we will need to be extra vigilant if we value these freedoms.
We cannot take them for granted.
+Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits U.