/ 25 July 2016

Media and race: Is freedom of expression letting racists off the hook?

​Members of the Jewish community picket outside the Woolworths in Sea Point
​Members of the Jewish community picket outside the Woolworths in Sea Point


I am more confused than ever before. I have just returned from a seminar: Racism, Censorship and Freedom of Expression. What should we do about racism and racists and what is the media’s role?

I found myself being swayed by all the speakers: Wits University law professor Cathi Albertyn, Press Council director Joe Thloloe, Centre for Policy Studies political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi, Freedom of Expression Institute researcher Zororo Mavindidze, South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) director Lindiwe Khumalo and Afro-Middle East Centre director Na’eem Jeenah – even though they were all saying disparate things.

The questions in blunt form were: To punish or not to punish? If we adopt punitive measures, what should they be? Is a change in the Constitution appropriate and was the National Action Plan by the justice department and the hate crimes Bill the way to go?

The disparate views included:

  • Racism is systemic and the vectors include the economy, education, culture, religions, science and language; its pointless isolating individuals who rant racist sentiments.
  • Unfettered hate speech reproduces inequality therefore random rants have to be punished.
  • Racist speech is irrational and illogical is another view and this should be ignored. Racism stems from the way society is ordered, how on earth do we change this?
  • For those who would rather err on the side of freedom of expression, the mooted revision to the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes Bill to include hate speech is problematic. The right to offend is necessary for the sustenance of democracy. We must avoid authoritarianism and social control. Views in society will always be divergent. No one policy can satisfy everyone. Politics cannot exist without expression.
  • Some speakers pointed out the ridiculousness of South African society: one offensive tweet and then we march. But then said that in an ideal democracy stupid tweets don’t matter – but we are not living in an ideal society. Another view was that, let’s be clear, race is a social construct and there is only one race, the human race.

All these philosophical debates are being discussed at a series of seminars being held by the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in partnership with the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and the Canadian Embassy, leading to the Reporting Racism conference on October 19, Black Wednesday/ Media Freedom Day.

There was a view that the media should not be giving “airtime” to the Sparrows of the world; who cares about what they say? It should not be amplifying racists’ rants. It should be ignoring them.

One of the main views emanating from the seminars so far vis-à-vis the role of the media is that all voices must be heard – not just the powerful. It ought to be a space for diversity.

Further, that journalists’ voices are powerful – when they use them. But they must to stop avoiding the issue. Deal, confront, acknowledge, don’t say “move on”, was an incisive injunction.

One of the ways to confront racism is to acknowledge that journalists are not separate from society. Journalists, according to more than one speaker, are uncomfortable talking about race and racism. They think racism exists in an external space, external to them and their newsrooms. They don’t question “whiteness” enough: this is not about colour but about ideology, worldview, culture and cultural expression.

There may be some basis for some of the criticism, but I am not so sure the media are unquestioning. We are seeing these debates more and more in the public space, aren’t we?

Another conference, titled The South African Story: Headlines, By-lines and Storylines, is takes place on August 19 and 20 at the annual Mennel Media Exchange. It will discuss race, equity and decolonisation; how we chose our stories; how we chose to tell them and whose voices are heard and not heard. Journalists should get innovative ideas about how they can make a difference to making the country a less racist place.

And I may be getting less confused. I don’t believe the media should be ignoring the hysterical vitriol against the traffic cop and the beachgoers of Durban. In fact, traditional and social media did an excellent job in amplifying the incidents. It made people cringe and reflect on the fact that we have these people in our society, 22 years into our democracy, and to ask: What can we do about racism and racists?

Let all those who sprout racist vitriol sprout away so we can hear and catch them. Let’s write about it. I think I am going to stick with erring on the side of freedom of expression. But also not letting racists off the hook.

Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.