False propaganda offends human dignity

The first casualty of war is the truth, it has been said. Years ago, in Germany, I heard a wise old Polish professor saying in a lecture: “Every matter has its thousand sides … or at least its two.” My judicial experience, especially when wild accusations were exchanged in the urgent court during vicious parental disputes about children, confirmed the at-least-two-sides truth.

For international news I generally do not watch only “mainstream Western media” — as Russia Today (RT) calls them — like CNN, BBC and Euronews, but also RT, Chinese Global Television Network and Al Jazeera. This I did during the run-up to and early stages of the war in Ukraine. There is always another side, I was reminded by my sense of fairness not only to the parties involved (who hardly need my fairness), but to myself.

So, I took a break from CNN’s repetitive tirade against Vladimir Putin, like they did with Donald Trump, even though I welcomed every bit of evidence that proved the Don to be a sociopathic narcissist. I watched RT. Then, suddenly, the screen simply said: “Feed Stopped Abruptly by Supplier.” It shows a picture explaining how the supply of material was blocked by the European Union

The Economic Freedom Fighters and others complained. In an article in the Sunday Times on 6 March South African journalist Paula Slier, employed by RT, argued that whether one agrees with the channel or not, it should not be banned.

Our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, including media freedom and the freedom to receive or impart information and ideas. Even in apartheid South Africa former chief justice Frans Rumpff, in a minority appeal court judgment regarding the banning of Wilbur Smith’s book When the Lion Feeds, described freedom of expression as “a hard-won and precious asset, yet easily lost”. In the United States it has been called “the shining star” in their “constitutional constellation”.

Why is freedom of expression universally recognised as a fundamental right in international, regional and domestic human rights documents? I mention three reasons.

First, it is essential for the growth of knowledge and scientific progress. If no one could say that the Earth was round, we might still have believed it to be flat. But, in the search for the truth many untruths emerge, innocently as well as maliciously. Mighty propaganda machines brainwash people and keep them ignorant. “Wir haben nicht gewissen” (We never knew) thousands of Germans claimed after World War II, as they saw multiple skeletons — dead and barely alive — emerging from concentration camps. To this day Germany says: “Niemals wieder” (Never again).

Second, freedom of expression is essential for democracy. One cannot meaningfully vote for or against someone who is not allowed to criticise competitors or present a policy. But, we also see how Trump’s continuing lie — that he won an election which he decidedly lost — is believed by millions of Americans and undermines democracy. The free expression Adolf Hitler enjoyed enabled him to become chancellor — and to abolish free expression.

Third — and most importantly — freedom of speech is essential for the expression of self, personal autonomy and existing in a world with others. Lengthy solitary confinement can do devastating damage to the human psyche. Without the freedom to communicate, the right to human dignity — sometimes argued to be the mother of all rights — is violated. Of course free expression must often be weighed against other rights, like equality, security, privacy and dignity itself. Thus it may be limited by law. The limitation must be reasonable and justifiable in an open democratic society.

I watched RT to see what happens in Russia, today and every day. Is the Russia of today the Russia of the great authors Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn? Do Russians appreciate the music of the famous Romantic composer, Tchaikovsky, and enjoy his celebration of the thundering noise of the battlefield in the 1812 Overture? But, alas, rather than providing news about Russia, loud marginalised Americans mostly tell us on RT about the evils of the US and the rest of “the West”.

Whether the EU blocks RT because of the perceived danger in what they tell and show us about the war, or as part of a comprehensive sanctions package, I do not know. Slier points out that CNN and Fox News have also spread untruths about war, but are still on the air. She has a point. I would like to ask her though whether it is true that Russian state media may not use terms like “war” and “invasion” and are restricted to the official line of “a special military operation”. If so, does her professional integrity allow her to abide? 

RT showed and echoed Putin’s repeated statements that no invasion of Ukraine was intended, even during the massive military buildup over months. It was only the West, which insisted that Putin had sinister plans to justify sanctions, the channel said — even though many of the sanctions would badly hurt those very Western countries. 

We also heard that no civilians in Ukraine were targeted. The hospitals, schools and theatres left in ruins and the corpses in the rubble must have been bombed by Ukrainians themselves.

RT conveyed Putin’s various explanations of the reasons for his military operation: the Ukrainian army commits genocide against the people of the Donbas region. They want to belong to Russia. So, Putin recognised Donetsk and Luhansk as “independent people’s republics”! In fact, the entire Ukraine should not be an independent country. The Nazi Ukrainian government, under a Jewish president, must face criminal trials. They brainwashed Ukrainians who are actually Russians — and are now bombed to pieces. In violation of international law, Nato threatened war by encircling Russia with east European members or aspirant member states. These and more — often contradictory — arguments RT offered.

For more than four decades after World War II the West was obsessed with the threat of communism. In his famous novel, The Joke, Milan Kundera, stated that the Russian domination of Czechoslovakia was less about the spread of communism (a perhaps well-intended ideological goal), than about the expansion of the Russian empire. This might well be Putin’s project.

I agree with the EFF and Paula Slier that we should have access to RT. It enhanced my insight into the war. Some of the grounds for Russian discontent one could try to understand. But do they justify a brutal war, in this day and age? 

Much as free expression is essential to human dignity, blatantly untrue propaganda offends dignity. It could fail to achieve its purpose. Perhaps more than CNN and BBC, RT persuaded me — at least for now— that Putin is a lying power-hungry thug, supported by corrupt cohorts and ignorant masses.

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Johann van der Westhuizen
Johann van der Westhuizen, who assisted in drafting South Africa’s constitution, is a retired justice of the Constitutional Court, the founding director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights and a former inspecting judge of Correctional Services. The views expressed are his own

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