Don’t censor the red berets, describe them

There has been a suggestion that the best way to respond to the politics of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is either not to cover them in the media or to block content that is incendiary. But it is misplaced and editors and journalists should reject it.

One of the most important breaks with the past that we made in 1994 was a deep commitment to a free flow of information. The jurisprudential reasoning underpinning it is cogent. In essence, if we take the deliberative and participatory models of democracy seriously, as our founding parents did, then it follows that we must be given as much information as possible to make up our own minds.

The media should help to entrench an open society rather than subverting the ideal of openness. If you think about the many ways in which apartheid was unjust, you would have to pause over what the suppression of information does to society.

For example, I am astounded at what is contained in a new book about Dimitri Tsafendas, which revises the propaganda falsehoods of the apartheid state about Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassin. It turns out that Tsafendas was neither mad nor apolitical.

When the state and society veer towards totalitarianism, then the flow of information is managed for nefarious ends. By suppressing information, you undermine the political rights of citizens. Political rights are only animated when we are in a position to reason on the basis of facts. Our political agency is hollow if information is suppressed about issues we’re asked to take a view on as voters and as engaged citizens.

Crucially, societies do not become totalitarian overnight. They creep slowly away from openness towards opacity. Therefore, citizens must be vigilant and watch out for totalitarian creep. Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, didn’t start his post-independence leadership in the same odious and repressive manner in which he ended it.

The post-apartheid era isn’t a nirvana. We are still struggling to realise the democratic ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Those ideals are solid, worth holding on to and worth striving towards. A core lesson of the colonial and apartheid eras is that society is worse off when those in power control information about what is going on.

There are also good philosophical and practical reasons why greater openness and less opacity should be embraced when it comes to what and who the media reports on.

In a diverse society, including diverse newsrooms founded on a commitment to pluralism, who will take the decision about what counts as incendiary speech? Who decides what counts as dangerous or unproductive speech? These are not mechanical and value-free judgments. Inevitably there will be a kind of reproduction of discursive hegemonies if we fall back on the old markers of acceptable speech.

Just as our economic ownership patterns still reflect the past, so too our discourse will reflect past unjust distributions of social and political power if we embrace censorship tendencies imported from the 1980s.

It’s dangerous, quite apart from being pointless in an era of new media, which makes it impossible for traditional media to stop the public from knowing what is being suppressed by mainstream editors.

The opposite of discursive hegemony might be something like “discursive redress”. I recently heard journalism professor Franz Krüger use this term. It refers to active efforts by journalists to render the voices of those whose experiences, viewpoints and interests are still routinely supressed, visible in the media.

The EFF’s politics can be jarring for those of us who do not like disruption and flirtation with anarchy. Indeed, my own most recent criticism of the EFF refers to that.

But there is a difference between censoring political actors and criticising them. The latter is healthy. The former is not.

One might say that my general argument is premised on a libertarian ideal of speech, which is at odds with the Constitution. Our Constitution is liberal, which means we value speech rights in general, but do not regard speech rights as absolute. That is why hate speech is not protected. That is also why incitement of violence is not allowed in our law.

It would be erroneous to read my analysis as an argument for unfettered speech. There are justifiable moral and legal limitations on our speech rights. They are compatible with the ideals of openness and transparency. If a speech act undermines my dignity then the person responsible for that infringement should face the legal and social consequences that rightly follow when you trample on another’s dignity.

The nexus issue here, however, is whether censorship is a useful response to such speech. I don’t think so. Our law already allows us to seek redress if we believe that speech has harmed us. That is why, rightly so, Pravin Gordhan laid charges against the leadership of the EFF. He did not ask for editors to censor the EFF.

The minister is also entitled to criticise the media’s reporting on the EFF, which is more sophisticated than asking the media not to report on the politics and actions of the EFF leadership.

You make heroes out of people by banning or censoring them. They can then play the victim. You also send a message to your audience that you do not trust them to be smart enough to think for themselves about the information you publish. That is both patronising and based on a deeply flawed appreciation of South Africans’ ability to think for themselves.

Sure, our population could do with greater critical and analytic skills. That is true both of our readers, viewers and listeners and of journalists. Why should we assume writers and broadcasters are inherently sharper in sifting through and thinking about information than society at large? If anything, our journalism can do with greater levels of analytic framing.

Which brings me to a final point. Let’s say that, as a journalist, you sincerely believe that the EFF is fascist or sliding towards fascism. What should you do about it?

Well, you can write comment and opinion as long as you flag it as such. On opinion pages, you are free to warn the public about fascists and make a case for doing so. Invite debate thereafter and let your audience decide whether your analysis is cogent.

As for reporting, if you think the EFF is using you to peddle falsehoods, then don’t simply report what they say without placing it in context and without interrogation. You have a duty to verify and test the claims. Tell your audience that the EFF is lying, but back this up with facts. That is a better response as a journalist than to be tempted by censorship.

Censorship is lazy. It is an attempt to bypass your duty to unearth the facts. Real journalism requires you to be more than just an archive for political speeches. You must also test and corroborate what subjects and interviewees feed you. We cannot run away from the hard work by deciding for the public that they should not hear from EFF leader Julius Malema.

When all is said and done, it is worth remembering that, with the power of the pen (or keyboard), the most effective way to respond to thuggery and to thugs is to describe them.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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