/ 7 March 2019

What the EFF, Malema? What about democracy?

Malema published journalist Karima Brown's telephone number on his Twitter account. He must have foreseen that EFF supporters would bully and harass her
Malema published journalist Karima Brown's telephone number on his Twitter account. He must have foreseen that EFF supporters would bully and harass her, violating a range of her fundamental rights, writes the author. (David Harrison/M&G)

Economic Freedom Fighters supporters have viciously attacked eNCA’s and Radio 702’s Karima Brown verbally simply because she did her job as a senior journalist by writing some pedestrian pointers to her colleagues at eNCA about how they may wish to interrogate aspects of EFF politics.

She made the mistake of accidentally cross-posting these in a WhatsApp group that included some EFF staff members. That is when all hell broke loose, and the cyberbullying started.

Malema had published her telephone number on his Twitter account. He must have foreseen that EFF supporters would bully and harass her, violating a range of her fundamental rights.

Violent messages were sent and phone calls made. This is nothing less than an attack on her privacy as well as her bodily and psychological integrity, the range of speech rights she is entitled to as a citizen and, more specifically, the right to media freedom that she enjoys as a journalist.

READ MORE: Cyberattacks on female journalists threaten everyone

There are at least three points to lift to the surface here. First, it is compulsory for political parties to respect the Electoral Act and the electoral code of conduct, particularly now that the date of the election has been gazetted. Section 8(c) of the Electoral Act states that every registered party and candidate “must take all reasonable steps to ensure that journalists are not subjected to harassment, intimidation, hazard, threat or physical assault by any of their representatives or supporters”.

The tweet by Malema did the opposite. It laid the foundation for harassment, intimidation and threats by its supporters. How can this not be a textbook instance of the trampling on the letter and spirit of the Electoral Act? Note, for example, that Malema would not be in breach of section 8 if he had nothing to do with the sequence of events that led to the intimidation, but, on hearing about it, he did nothing to stop it.

Malema is, in fact, in a worse position than that. His tweet and his remarks, which have been broadcast on various platforms, were the first major public statements by an EFF leader that led directly to the unlawful behaviour of EFF supporters. This makes Malema doubly complicit: he is responsible for the sequence of events that led to Brown’s rights being violated; and for not swiftly stopping the harassment by, for example, condemning these supporters, deleting the tweet with her phone number and retracting unsubstantiated claims that she is not a “real journalist” but a “state agent”. Malema knows that that kind of accusation, in the context of South Africa’s history, marks someone out as an enemy, as a target for attack.

Malema is not someone who uses language carelessly. He is a brilliant orator who understands how political language lands, a gift that is often underappreciated by some commentators. He thinks long and hard about his speech acts before he performs them. Only a naive person could imagine that Malema hadn’t intended for his description of Brown to ignite fire in the belly of a hardcore EFF supporter. He knew exactly what he was doing.

This was an explicit violation of the Electoral Act and the electoral code of conduct in the service of short-term political gains. Malema attempted to neutralise a journalist who has been consistently critical of his party. He tried to discredit her in the hope that her criticism would have little effect on the public.

Put differently, Malema is scared of the pen and the mouth of Brown, which is why he bothered to target her. It is, ironically, a recognition of Brown’s journalistic excellence that Malema takes her seriously enough to attack her. You don’t waste time attacking people you have no regard for.

This brings me to the second point: the functional purpose behind the attack on Brown. It is designed to make other reporters, talk show hosts, analysts and commentators think twice about criticising the EFF. A less experienced or not-so-tough journalist may not respond the way Brown has by continuing to do her work, fearlessly. Others may not want to be cyberbullied and write instead about the Democratic Alliance or Patricia de Lille or the ANC. In other words, regardless of whether Brown is silenced or not, the hope is that others in the media will not dare to opine as sharply about EFF politics as Brown has been doing. In this sense, these bullying tactics close the space for diversity, debate and democratic contestation.

Just this evening, for example, an experienced political analyst and academic told me he was worried about how the EFF may respond to forthcoming criticism from him. This concern is from someone who never minces his words. If senior academics, analysts and experienced journalists should start to self-censor, what about others in our newsrooms who have less power, experience and access to resources to help them to mount legal battles or hire protection services?

The EFF leadership must be held accountable for the inherent danger that this kind of sponsored attack will inevitably have on the media. Journalists are human before they are journalists. They cannot be regarded as immune to the sense of vulnerability that one experiences when fundamental rights are trampled on. And Brown was threatened with death and rape. It is not inappropriate to ascribe political blame to the EFF leadership for the behaviour of their supporters.

Third, there is no guarantee that the EFF will grow by an big margin this year. It may. It may not. We do not do polling very well in South Africa. But it is widely accepted that the brand of Cyril Ramaphosa is stronger than the brand of the ANC and, as a result, there is a very real likelihood that many voters, who are rightly disgusted by the years of state capture, may consider returning to the ruling party. The EFF may be worried. When parties worry about their electoral fortunes, they like to have excuses ready if the final tally looks terrible.

It is very convenient, now already, to paint a picture that the Electoral Commission, for example, is biased or incompetent. It is very convenient, now already, to accuse the media pre-emptively of bias. We saw the ANC, for example, needlessly trying to bully the SABC last Friday. In an interview with me on 702 recently, the DA’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, pre-emptively tried to suggest that “populist” political rhetoric may well result in people voting for the ANC or the EFF. That, too, is an attempt to make excuses beforehand for underperformance by blaming your opponents for apparently using unethical tactics to gain votes.

By attacking the media, the EFF can, in the middle of May, if it does not have a good set of final numbers, tell us that it was hard to excel when “so-called journalists like Karima Brown” were against them. What we are witnessing, in other words, are signs of a political leadership having a crisis of confidence at the expense of media freedom and democratic contestation.

How should voters respond? By not trivialising what is at stake here. This is not about Brown. It is not even about the workplace or the labour rights of journalists. It is more fundamental than that. It is about the preconditions for a democracy to flourish. Unless you have a free flow of information, and a diversity of political views expressed on various media platforms, including ideologically diverse opinions from analysts and talk shows and journalists, your democratic culture will be poorer.

The acid test of whether you are a democrat is not whether you like a particular person or whether you agree with their views. It is whether you are willing to hear their views dispassionately, and engage with the content of their speech rationally rather than attacking their human rights. Malema, and the EFF, should do better. We need them to do better precisely because the ANC has run out of ideas and the DA doesn’t know why it exists. It is a shame to see the EFF ruining a chance to consolidate a good entry into formal politics.