Banning free speech – where will it end?

When a church bans a bishop from speaking to the media, you have to wonder what’s next. Blocking the man from addressing his parishioners?

In the apartheid days, more than 1600 dissidents were banned from speaking in public to more than one person at any given time. And everyone else was prohibited from quoting individuals thus ‘listed”.

This time around, it’s not a minority government doing the gagging. It’s the Methodist Church which reportedly suspended Bishop Paul Verryn for allegedly defying its instruction not to talk to the media.

However controversial the Bishop and his Central Methodist Church may be, one would have thought that a free South Africa would have been a beacon of free speech—and not least within the church.

The Constitution’s bill of rights speaks of ‘an open and democratic society”, but the latest travesty is not confined to the Verryn case.

State prosecutors have also now been banned from speaking to journalists. Before that, it was teachers. Who’s next on the road to a culture of silencing everyone?

On paper, the police have a reasonable system. Standing Order 156 says that any police officer can communicate with journalists within reasonable parameters. In practice though, the prescription only has the status of guidelines. When the KwaZulu-Natal commissioner gagged police in that province last year, nothing could be done.

Such heavy-handed approaches serve to create secretive institutions. By censoring what information emerges into the public sphere, the steps violate people’s entitlements to freedom of expression.

The media rightly (and self-interestedly) squeals about gagging of sources. But the ultimate victim, of course, is the public’s right to know.

And, ironically, disclosing too little information can also work directly against the interests of an organisation that puts in place tight restraints.
Institutions do have legitimate interests in trying to manage information about them. But the balancing of these against both the right to free speech and public interest is getting grossly out of kilter.

What we’re seeing in South Africa is a trend to make gagging the default setting, and release of information the exception.

It should be the other way around—with the norm being an information flow without undue hindrance.

Anyway, measures that limit who can speak to the media are never entirely successful. They just drive informants into anonymous leaks and off-the-record sourcing.

A far preferable policy is to recognise the freedom of employees to speak, and to educate them about reasonable parameters. Rather than prohibition, institutions should practice empowerment.

Employees need information literacy. Like knowing what counts as classified information or what could impact on procurement or privacy sensitivities. And the difference between communicating in private or in official capacity.

In New Zealand, there’s a media protocol along these lines which sets out principles to inform prosecutors when they speak to the media. These include highly valid points like not prejudicing a fair trial, avoiding personal opinions and respecting the privacy of crime victims. Note: They are not a blanket ban on communication.

In contrast, our National Prosecution Agency (NPA) has not only gotten the wrong end of the big stick; it’s waving it around in a way that’s really offensive.

Thus, spokesperson Bulelwa Makeke is quoted as saying that her particular public body is just like ‘any other industry” with a reputation to uphold. This is from a person works for a public agency, not a private company. The NPA has responsibilities to communicate with the public—including via the media—and especially about reputational issues.

In an Orwellian manner befitting old apartheid-speak, Makeke also denies the NPA is gagging the prosecutors. ‘We are not saying they cannot talk, they just have to have proper authorisation.”

Compare this NPA’s overkill with the United Nations’ wholly reasonable guidelines for categories of staff who can speak publicly:

  • speak only within you area of competence and responsibility;

  • provide facts, not opinions or comments; and

  • leave sensitive issues to officials who are specifically authorised to speak on them.

Anyone can understand that an army at war would have a case to circumscribe its information disclosures. Prosecutors, teachers and priests are not employed by military-style institutions. And while these professionals should get training in information literacy, it’s their bosses who really need to be educated.

This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author.

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