June 09 – June 15 2006

Just how low could she go?

The headline of Khadija Magardie’s article on May 26, ”How low can you go?”, presumably refers to the waistlines of army-issued trousers for women soldiers in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). It is more fitting to relate it to the gutter journalism it represents.

The venom and vitriol spewed by the writer’s pen cannot go unchallenged; nor can the Mail & Guardian‘s decision to publish such vileness. The sentiments expressed are tantamount to hate speech.

Examples are its claim that the IDF, under the Law of Return, is peopling ”pimply-faced and anguished hormonal female teenagers from Marseilles, Addis Ababa and lord knows where else” and Israeli soldiers ”roughing up Palestinian labourers on their way to work (as happens daily) or shooting little schoolgirls in the head, then coming down the guard tower ‘to confirm the kill’ (as really happened)”.

The latter accusation is breath-taking in its temerity. Soldiers at the checkpoints are obliged to search the Palestinians because many of them have concealed suicide belts beneath their clothes, and the soldiers are obliged to protect innocent Israelis. To accuse the soldiers of shooting little girls and confirming the kill is libellous in the extreme.

Magardie writes about the damage done to the psyches of Palestinian men by Israel’s use of women as ”part of its arsenal of humiliation”. The implication that the IDF should remove women from their posts because they threaten the masculinity of Palestinian men, who live in a patriarchal society, makes no sense whatsoever. — Bev Goldman, South African Zionist Federation

The Zionist Federation lodged formal complaints about Magardie’s article with both Press Ombud Edwin Linnington and the M&G‘s own ombud, Franz Krüger.

Linington replied: ”The article in question is comment. It is not clear to me exactly how it contravenes the relevant sections of the press code on discrimination and comment, read in the light of the definition of hate speech in article 16 (2)(c) of the Constitution.”

Krüger replied: ”It seems to me Magardie’s piece makes two main points: firstly, that Israeli women should not be soldiers because they are likely to spend too much time on their appearance, and it makes some sarcastic points along the way about the military having to deal with such issues in the midst of much more serious matters. It secondly argues that women should not be soldiers because this tramples on the sensitivities of Palestinian men.

”I think the first point is not a very important one, and you also don’t seem to see it as a major issue. The second one raises an interesting and legitimate question. Whatever their background, checkpoints are, I’m sure you will agree, not the most congenial of settings. What happens to cultural sensitivities around male/female interaction under those circumstances? It might have been interesting to hear what IDF policy is on this issue. But this is not something you chose to canvass.

”Your objection is elsewhere. You argue that the issue of fashion in the Israeli army is simply an excuse for a diatribe against Israel, and refer variously to libel and hate speech. You object particularly to the claim that women soldiers have shot little girls in the head and then confirmed the kill.

”The legal concept of libel of course requires an identifiable individual, which is not the case in the statement about the shooting of little girls.

”Is it hate speech? Our Constitution defines this fairly narrowly, in the interests of free speech. It is taken as referring to speech which, among other things, constitutes ‘incitement to cause harm’. Even though it was put very strongly, I’m not sure one can really discern any incitement of this kind in the piece, in the sense of calls to take action against Israelis. Do shocking claims and counterclaims cause people to take action against each other, just by virtue of their hearing them? It is not impossible, but in the context of a situation as polarised as the Middle East, it is virtually impossible to exclude reports and discussion that makes some people angry. To suppress that kind of debate would simply cause more harm than ventilating it.

”There’s no doubt that the piece is highly opinionated and deliberately provocative. It did offend some readers, and last week’s letters page contained some fairly strong reaction. It certainly pushed the envelope, and could have done with some editing, both to make its argument clearer and perhaps to lessen the offence. But I don’t feel that it should not have been published.”

Both Linington and Krüger recommended that in the interests of fairness, the M&G should publish the SAZF’s letter.

Non-Africans clueless about the league

Ferial Haffajee’s attack on the African National Congress Youth League (May 22) was irresponsible and fallacious.

Fikile Mbalula and Buti Manamela do not act individually, but on mandates from the constituency that democratically elected them. If we are gatvol of them, we’ll kick them out.

Non-African analysts who theorise about the youth and the masses are generally clueless. They don’t know what kind of society we want, what leaders appeal to us and why. They still regard the African child as someone who can’t reason.

The league’s support for Jacob Zuma is principled, and follows tussles with ruling party bigwigs, the media’s bashing of Zuma, the abuse of constitutionally created institutions to settle scores with taxpayers’ money, and many inconsistencies and controversial decisions by our president.

The league has never campaigned against a woman president. It merely emphasised the context — Thabo Mbeki’s insistence that the succession should only be debated at next year’s ANC conference, and the timing of his pronouncement.

The concern is that lobbying for a female president should take place inside the movement’s structures.

Biased and unethical reporting has become the norm in your newspaper. — Sibusiso Gumede

Patronising and plain wrong

David Patient and Neil Orr’s letter (June 2) patronisingly misrepresents the Treatment Action Campaign’s position on nutrition and tries to rewrite Patient’s own ambivalent role in the struggle for anti-retroviral access. The TAC has never been in ”opposition to promoting nutritional measures” for people with HIV. We widely distribute a simple, scientifically based pamphlet on nutrition. The importance of nutrition is dealt with at length in our treatment literacy programme.

Patient’s ambivalent attitude to ARVs is epitomised by a hysterical article he wrote in 2002 called ”All pigs fed and ready to fly”, which painted a gloomy view of the possibility of poor people doing well on treatment. His has been proved wrong in many studies of African treatment projects published in peer-reviewed journals in recent years.

Unfortunately, truth-telling continues to be a casualty of South Africa’s HIV debate. — Nathan Geffen, TAC

We were right all along

Returning to New York last week for the review of the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/Aids was gratifying. The Comprehensive Review and High-Level Meeting reflected how far the world has come to accept what President Thabo Mbeki sought to highlight as early as 2000.

He said that we could not blame the challenge of HIV/Aids only on the virus, and should have a collection of interventions that addresses the correlation between the agent, the host and the environment.

The report of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to the meeting recognised that poverty, underdevelopment and gender inequality are among the principal contributing factors to the spread of HIV and Aids. The success of a global response, therefore, requires the doubling of efforts in meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

Annan went on to emphasise the role of prevention as the mainstay of the global response to HIV/Aids — the basis of the South African government’s response all along.

The review indicated that much progress has been made in implementing prevention, care and treatment programmes that were found to be effective, but with guarded success rates.

The South African delegation’s presentation tried to highlight the areas that we believe can assist in improving the global response. We emphasised the importance of promoting a healthy lifestyle to maintain optimal health, and delay as much as possible the progression from HIV infection to Aids-defining conditions. We need to also address food insecurity and malnutrition and focus our energies on the emancipation of women and the protection of the rights of children.

We also called for continuation of endeavours to reduce the prices of medicines and other essential commodities. We also have to encourage innovation and research in additional tools for our response, including vaccines and microbicides, traditional medicine and other therapies.

We do not need political grandstanding to demonstrate our commitment and leadership. A sustained increase in resource allocation, and implementation of programmes that make a difference to the lives of the people on the ground, is what matters most to the government. — Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Minister of Health

No awareness of privacy threat

Lest Nic Dawes think that the lack of reader response to his article ”A right to privacy? Get over it” (May 19) is further evidence of the public’s silent acceptance of growing threats to our right to privacy, I thought I’d write in myself.

I had been wondering why no newspaper had drawn attention to the undermining of privacy represented by the Communications Bill, or had questioned the constitutionality of its requirement that telecommunications providers monitor and record their customers’ calls and SMSs.

Almost a year ago, I wrote to the M&G in response to an article describing how the National Intelligence Agency had fingerprinted delegates at the International Housing Research Seminar, and captured information about their cellphones. I asked: If I had been a delegate, would I have had the right to refuse to be fingerprinted or have other information taken from me? What protection does our Constitution offer us from surveillance by the state?

The public’s awareness of and response to privacy and surveillance issues would be much enhanced by more critical media coverage. I agree with Dawes that there is not yet widespread consciousness of these issues. I would be interested to read further and more detailed articles about the state of privacy in South Africa, and why we should be concerned to protect it. — Ralph Borland

Whose interests?

The Mail & Guardian‘s exposés have been critical in limiting the abuse of power.

However, one has to ask about the ”leaks” which result in such exposure. In the long term, whose interests do they serve?

If one pieces together the stories, one trend stands out — those outside the Mbeki camp or in competition for power are more likely to bite the dust — including Kgalema Motlanthe and Mac Maharaj.

That is not to say that the exposés are without foundation. But are these leaks serving to destroy credible alternative candidates for the presidency? — Rasimeni Manjezi, Cape Town

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