Tension was still simmering when a hate speech complaint lodged against Islamic station Radio 786 by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies – over a programme aired 14 years ago – was heard in Cape Town this week.
British academic and author David Hirsh was the first of five expert witnesses expected to take the stand for the board of deputies at the public hearing by the complaints and compliance committee of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).
Hirsh said he believed the contents of the contested programme about Zionism and the state of Israel, broadcast on May 8 1998, constituted a "clear and conscious attempt to advocate for an anti-Semitic world view".
"The transcript is rich in classic anti-Semitic claims and stereotypes. For example, the Jews cause war and revolutions, they conspire with imperialism to steal natural resources, they control banking, they invented the Holocaust, they procure and benefit from adultery, the machinations of famous Jewish families are key to world history and Israel is a product of Jewish conspiracy," Hirsh said.
The radio programme featured controversial United Kingdom academic Yaqub Zaki and Hirsh pointed out that, among other things, the broadcast advocated Holocaust denial.
"Zaki's discourse about the Holocaust is fully characteristic of Holocaust denial. He says that 'Holocaust guilt syndrome' is manufactured by the alleged conspiracy of Jews for the purpose of downplaying concern about the oppression of the Palestinians."
In his witness statement presented to the committee, Hirsh alleged that Zaki treaded a "well-worn path" of claiming that Jews died from infectious diseases rather than gassing.
"The radio programme in question does not constitute criticism of Israel or of Zionism, but is rather irrational, essential and absolutist denunciation of Jews, Israel and Zionism. It is also based on false premises," he said. "It is the kind of hostility to Israel and to Zionism that is uncontroversially anti-Semitic ... It is racist in its form, in its ferocity, in its relentlessness, in its use of anti-Semitic stereotype and in its positioning of Israel and the Jews at the very centre of all that is bad in the world."
The board of deputies argued that, in broadcasting this programme, Radio 786 was guilty of contravening the broadcasting code of conduct and a relevant section that prohibits the "advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm".
The Islamic Unity Convention, the licence holder for Radio 786, believes the case will have far-reaching implications for media freedom and will test South Africa's democracy.
A legal wrangle has resulted in the case going to the high court a number of times. An out-of-court settlement was reached before a Supreme Court of Appeal finding that a fresh hearing on the matter had to be referred to Icasa. Although the hearing was scheduled to run for four days, from Tuesday to Friday this week, it is expected to run for longer, according the communications authority.
Four expert witnesses support the Islamic Unity Convention, among them Rabbi Ahron Cohen, an orthodox rabbi who is retired and lives in the United Kingdom. In his affidavit, Cohen acknowledged that he found the comments on the Holocaust made by Zaki "distasteful and unattractive" and that their historical inaccuracy revealed the speaker "was not well versed on the topic".
"Surely, some who engage in this speech are motivated by anti-Semitism, or Jew hatred on a racist basis. However, the South African Jewish Board is incorrect in identifying Holocaust revisionism as in every instance anti-Semitic.
"More often, those who engage in revising the fact of the Holocaust appear to be motivated by a perfectly justifiable wish to delegitimise the agenda of Zionism and its creation, the state of Israel. In particular, the revisers push back against what has been a long-established pattern of the Zionists and Israel exploiting the tragedy of the Holocaust in order to justify their immoral, non-Jewish states and its crimes against Jews and non-Jews alike, principally, the Palestinians."
Cohen said it was his belief that countries that try to legislate or criminalise such speech would not achieve their aim and might in fact worsen the problem.
Recommendation on the complaint
"Likewise, those who seek to minimise or revise the historical facts of the Holocaust must be dealt with through open discussion, in the full light of the sun and in plain air," he said.
Cohen himself has, at times, been on the receiving end of attempts to suppress his criticism of Zionism and the state of Israel.
"My colleagues and I have been physically attacked at demonstrations and beaten or struck for opposing Zionism. I have been shouted down and prevented from speaking by Zionists," he said in his affidavit. "I am certain that a great many radio stations in Israel would prevent me, in the hypothetical [because I do not visit the Zionist state], beforehand from ever speaking on their airwaves against Zionism, or in favour of dismantling the Israeli state, or that any such station permitting my ideas a fair airing would later be punished by Israeli broadcast authorities."
The complaints and compliance committee, chaired by Wandile Tutani, will make a recommendation on the complaint to Icasa's council.
Islamic Unity Convention secretary Ali Mia Chiktay said Radio 786 prided itself on providing a platform for opinions and voices not often covered by the commercial media.
"The hearing does not only relate to Radio 786, but [also] has implications for all electronic media and the press as a whole. We believe freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution guarantees that media are able to disseminate information freely so that the public is allowed to decide and freely formulate their opinions.
"Radio 786 has consistently held that it cannot determine what a guest might or might not say while discussing pertinent issues," he said.
Radio 786 broadcast diverse views and opinions, said Chiktay, and this matter was a test for South Africa's democracy. The Board of Deputies had also been invited to participate in a discussion programme on the station and present its views, but this offer was not taken up, he said.